Editorial roundup

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sept. 29

Trump administration’s food-stamp end run around Congress must not stand

Ohio’s congressional delegation must fight the unjustifiable Trump administration plan to kick millions of Americans — including tens of thousands of Ohioans — off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

Besides the human costs, the administration’s proposal clearly breaches congressional intent.

If President Donald Trump does succeed, his administration plan would deny food stamp benefits to an estimated 61,081 Ohio households, about 8 percent of the Ohio households now enrolled in the program. According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, about 43 percent of Ohio’s food stamp beneficiaries are children. Kicking kids off food stamps would be a travesty that amounts to disinvesting in Ohio’s future.

The Trump plan’s bite would be even bigger nationally, according to Mathematica, a research firm that analyzed SNAP data. Of the 21.5 million American households that now benefit from SNAP, Mathematica estimated that the plan would cut about 1.9 million households from SNAP’s rolls.

At issue, to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, is a procedure Ohio and most other states use to screen food stamp applicants – Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE). The Trump administration claims BBCE can let people qualify for food stamps even when assets or income should disqualify them.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, an arm of Congress, reports that states have been allowed to use categorical eligibility since the 1996 welfare reform. Categorical eligibility considers an applicant’s receipt of a “service” (not necessarily a payment) from other welfare programs.

A fact sheet on Perdue’s plan, distributed by the Agriculture Department, doesn’t say how many SNAP clients shouldn’t be receiving benefits. But the fact sheet makes this telling observation: “(The) law” – note that word – “(authorizing SNAP) allows states to confer ‘categorical eligibility’ on those who have already been certified for similar means-tested programs – that is programs that check income, assets, and other circumstances, to ensure applicants are eligible – such as Temporary Assistant for Needy Families.”

The problem, the Agriculture Department claims, is that “some (unnamed) states” stretch eligibility, so even if SNAP applicants haven’t been means-tested by other welfare programs, they can be deemed to participate in those programs just by receiving a brochure on them.

Where does this happen? The department doesn’t say. How often does this happen? The department doesn’t say.

Congress passed the underlying law — note, it’s a law, not an administrative rule — in part to streamline cumbersome, costly and often duplicative means-testing for different federal programs. Advocates for Ohio’s approach, for instance, say this state’s use of the flexibility the law allows to waive asset tests — besides acknowledging that poor people may need small nest eggs in case of emergencies — has actually saved taxpayers money, not the other way around.

Maybe the Agriculture Department doesn’t like this law. But a federal agency can’t repeal laws. Only Congress can. And twice in the last five years, Congress has specifically refused to crimp or abolish “categorical eligibility” for food stamps.

The House-passed version of the 2014 farm bill would have ended broad-based categorical eligibility. But the House-Senate conference committee that reconciled the bill’s versions deleted the provision.

The House-passed version of the 2018 farm bill would have limited (but not ended) BBCE. The House-Senate conference committee that reconciled the bill’s versions deleted the provision. And Donald Trump signed the bill into law last Dec. 20.

One of the Trump administration’s purported aims is to reduce “the administrative state,” that is, government by unelected, rule-writing bureaucrats. Yet the administrative state is precisely what Perdue’s proposal exemplifies – trying to do, bureaucratically, what an elected Congress refuses to do.

In human terms, the proposed rule would cause cruel and unmerited damage to low-income families and lead more children to go to bed hungry. But in political terms, this attempted administrative end-run around congressional intent is brazen hypocrisy.

Ohio’s congressional delegation needs to defend its prerogatives, as well as its constituents, and demand that the administration withdraw this flawed attempt to undo lawmaking through which Congress has clearly, and repeatedly, expressed its intent.

Online: https://bit.ly/2mlxYnX