Learn to Love This Loophole

Congress left the door open to states avoiding food stamp cuts, and some governors are taking advantage.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, center, speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, following a meeting between President Barack Obama and members of the National Governors Association (NGA). From left are, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, NGA Chair, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, Malloy, and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy is not pleased that House Speaker John Boehner thinks he's a cheat and a fraud.

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In a move proving that bipartisanship can be highly overrated, Democrats and Republicans came together in February to cut more than $8 billion from the food stamp program. Those cuts would take about $90 in benefits per month away from about 850,000 households.

But some governors aren’t having it. And by taking advantage of a provision of the law that can charitably be called a loophole, they’re protecting some of their most vulnerable constituents from the cuts.

Here’s what’s going on: Several states have what are called “heat and eat” provisions, which mean that people who qualify for federally funded heating aid automatically qualify for higher levels of food stamp funding (with the theory being that those without enough money to heat their homes probably don’t have enough to buy adequate food either). Some states, though, would send checks for as little as $1 in “heating aid” to some constituents to qualify them for higher food stamp benefits.

Congress, and particularly House Republicans, don’t like this practice very much. So in the latest iteration of the farm bill – which is where funding for the food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, comes from – the law was changed to require a minimum of $20 in heating aid be received before higher food stamp benefits kick in. Several governors, perhaps predictably, responded by simply upping the amount of heating aid their states provide in order to ensure that those benefiting from “heat and eat” don’t lose their food stamps.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Thus far, eight states have pulled this move – Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Montana – all but one of which has a Democratic governor. (The exception, Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, is regarded as the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the nation.) And Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, for one, is not happy with them. "Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat once again on signing up people for food stamps," Boehner said last week. "And so I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing."

That earned Boehner a rebuke from Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, who said in a letter: “To characterize as cheating and fraud states’ implementation of this provision is disingenuous at best and shameful at worst … Congress wrote the bill. Congress passed the bill. And now states are implementing the law, your reprehensible comments notwithstanding.” Malloy is right that the governors are, indeed, following the law as Congress wrote it. And Boehner is right that this is probably not what House Republicans had in mind when they passed the law in the first place. But as long as it’s legal, the governors are doing the right thing, as cutting food stamps at this particular moment in time makes no sense at all.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Conservatives like to complain that food stamp use exploded under President Obama. Remember former Speaker Newt Gingrich deriding Obama as the “food stamp president” during the 2012 Republican primaries? And it’s true that food stamp use increased under Obama … in response to the worst economic crisis in a generation. As I’ve said before, rising payments in a time of economic distress are a feature, not a bug, of a functional social safety net.

As the economy heals, food stamp spending will return to normal, as this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows. In a few years, the boost that occurred during the recession will be nearly gone. So going after "out of control" food stamp spending has always been a solution in search of a problem.

Furthermore, it's not even clear that the governors taking this step will reduce the budget savings tallied in the farm bill, as the Congressional Budget Office, the official legislative scorekeeper, assumed that some governors would take this step. And let's not forget that cutting food stamps at a time when unemployment is high and the deficit falling is terrible policy at both an economic and moral level. Do we really need to be cutting food assistance when food insecurity in the U.S., according to the latest data, stands at 14.5 percent?

Of course, it's a shame that fiscal policy is so dysfunctional that getting people access to food aid requires a jerry-rigged solution that, at least arguably, violates the spirit of the law, if not the letter. But, hey, Congress left the door open to this sort of step, and if that's what it takes to keep families fed, then more power to those governors willing to step through it.