WASHINGTON -- A House committee is preparing today to slash the federal food stamp program by more than 10 percent over the next five years, chiefly by freezing or eliminating benefits, as part of a broader Republican drive to overhaul the welfare system.
The plan that the Agriculture Committee will consider is a compromise offered by the committee chairman, Rep. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican. His plan would soften the blow of proposed food stamp cuts on the farmers, grocers and agribusiness executives who profit from the program.
Under the plan, the food stamp program would still be run by the federal government. By contrast, a plan outlined in the Republicans' "Contract with America" would have sent cash payments to the states. In offering the compromise, Mr. Roberts said he feared that states might spend some of the money on items other than food.
Food stamp recipients would probably be hit just as hard in the Roberts plan as they would have been under the original Republican proposal.
The legislation before the committee would cut benefits by at least $16 billion over five years -- at least as much as would be saved by sending cash payments to the states, according to committee aides.
Democrats and other critics say the legislation would punish the poor to help reach the Republican goal of cutting taxes in a way that would benefit mostly the rich. Food stamp coupons are used by 27 million people to buy groceries each month.
"This is a profound change that would reduce the food-purchasing power for millions of poor families, children and the elderly," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for the poor. "Millions of people are probably going to have significantly less to eat."
Part of GOP campaign
The sweeping redesign of the food stamp program is a key part of the Republican campaign to curb federal spending on social programs while also advancing the ideological view that automatic aid programs rob recipients of an incentive to work. In the bill to be considered today, the savings would come from:
* Denying food stamps to able-bodied, childless adults aged 18 to 50 after 90 days unless they are working at least half-time or participate in a workfare program. This change could affect about 1 million of the 27 million food stamp recipients.
* Reducing or eliminating inflation allowances built into the formulas that determine food stamp benefits.
* Imposing a cap on the total amount that can be spent on the food stamp program, so that if the number of potential recipients grows, all beneficiaries get less.
* Cutting off food stamp benefits to legal immigrants until they have been in the United States at least five years and have applied for citizenship.
States could take over the food stamp program and determine their own requirements if they adopt a credit-card-like system, now used only in Maryland, to replace the stamps, which are more prone to abuse.
Through the electronic benefit transfer system, food stamp beneficiaries use a debit card at grocery stores to draw down on a food stamp account by the amount of their purchases.
But it is not clear whether Maryland or other states would choose to take over the program, because the federal block grant they get to finance it would be frozen at the 1994 level.
The nation's governors had once been eager to accept the food stamp program along with other federal nutrition programs as proposed by the Republican contract. The governors expected the federal government to give them cash so that they could put any money they saved in the food programs toward other purposes.
But after the agriculture industry raised objections to that approach because the money might not be spent on food, Mr. Roberts offered to turn over the food stamp coupons directly to the states instead.
"But they didn't want the coupons," the chairman said. "So, we came up with this interim approach."
The House Republicans want the savings from the food stamp program for their own purposes: to help offset a package of tax cuts promised in their contract and to begin the process of balancing the federal budget by 2002.
Trimming the food stamp program is part of a three-pronged effort to overhaul the welfare system, which is scheduled to be considered as a package on the House floor later this month.
Other elements include work requirements and restrictions on single mothers; and legislation to give states greater control over school meals, child care and nutrition programs for young children and pregnant women.
Uncertain fate in Senate
With a unified Republican majority in charge, the House is expected to approve the welfare overhaul easily, then send it on to a less certain fate in the more independent Senate.
One of the flaws in the "Contract with America," Mr. Roberts said, is that a host of federal programs were slated for overhaul without an overall plan for how the changes would fit together.
"We said we're going to do this, this and this, but nobody ever stopped to figure out how," he said.
Haste has also been a problem created for the Republicans by their contract. House Republicans are pressing hard to complete consideration of the welfare package before the 100-day deadline in mid-April.
Democrats complain that the Agriculture Committee is set to begin voting today on the food stamp cuts without any official cost estimates.
"We haven't even seen the bill yet," said Rep. Harold L. Volkmer, a Missouri Democrat who serves on the Agriculture Committee. "I don't know whether we're going to resist it. We don't know what's in it."
One new provision to be unveiled today strengthens penalties for people convicted of fraud or abuse of the food stamp program. Contrary to some earlier expectations, it is not expected to result in major cost savings.