To House Republicans, Thursday's vote to reform the country's food stamp program marks a triumph, an opportunity to keep a government program from ballooning out of control.
"It's welfare reform 2.0. It is pretty exciting," says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., one lawmaker who has been pushing to chop $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, during the next 10 years. "I think it is a very compassionate approach, targeting and reforming food stamps from being a way of life."
To Democrats, however, the vote is an alarming reminder of how much control the most fiscally conservative members of the House wield over their leadership.
"It is so stark. It is so strident as an issue. It is so insensitive," says Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., who participated in the food stamp challenge during the summer, an exercise where members of Congress lived off of roughly $32 for a week of groceries, the average food stamp benefit. "I don't think the leaders can really satisfy radicalism.They had better step up to it."
There are currently 47 million Americans enrolled in the SNAP program. Thursday's vote comes after months of debate in the House about how Republicans could shrink that number. Food stamp reforms had traditionally come through the farm bill. But many members of the GOP caucus wanted SNAP stripped from that legislation. They got their way. And for the first time since the 1970s, the House passed a farm bill without food stamps.
Thursday, the House is expected to pass a food stamp bill that the Congressional Budget Office predicts will kick 3.8 million Americans off of the SNAP program next year. That is on top of an already significant cut expected to begin in November.
Many of those affected by the cuts will be long-term unemployed adults without children Under the federal law, those individuals are only eligible for food stamps for three months within a three-year span, but states have waived those rules during the recession. This bill would bar states from expanding eligibility requirements, affecting a CBO-estimated 1.7 million in 2014.
Advocates for food stamps argue if Republicans are trying to go after waste, fraud and abuse in government programs, food stamps is not the place to start. Instead, they argue, food stamps actually help the economy.
Moody's Analytics shows that for every dollar the government hands out through food assistance, the U.S. economy gets $1.70 back.
"Food stamps is truly a miracle of public policy. We know it shields millions of people from hunger. It really impacts the health and nutrition of millions of households and it can benefit our economy," says Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions.
If the House passes its legislation as expected Thursday, the battle will shift to the Senate where lawmakers voted to cut just $4 billion from the food program, roughly 10 percent what the House legislation does. Senate Democrats though have said they will not support the House's "draconian cuts."