Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: A fellow congressman asks a question for the ages: ‘What’s wrong with Andy Harris?’ | COMMENTARY

Expanded SNAP benefits ($95 extra per month per household for food during the pandemic) are due to expire at the end of the month in Maryland and other states.

In an interview last week with Bloomberg Government, Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked a question for the ages: “What’s wrong with Andy Harris?”

Some of us have been asking that question for more than a decade, wondering why a fellow with a medical degree would vote repeatedly to keep thousands of low-income Americans from getting health insurance; or why Harris, Maryland’s only Republican in Congress, would cozy up to a Hungarian leader one edict away from being a full dictator; or why Harris would oppose honoring police officers who risked their lives to defend the Capitol, where Harris works, from a mob.


I could go on, but I won’t, in the interest of getting to what provoked McGovern to ask, “What’s wrong with Andy Harris?”

McGovern, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, was speaking of Harris’ desire to cut SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, to low-income Americans at a time when food prices have risen significantly. Harris recently became chairman of an agricultural subcommittee and, in the same Bloomberg report, vowed to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.


“We have to wring the tens of billions of dollars of money out of [SNAP], which was put in for COVID,” he said, adding, “As many Americans realize, the COVID emergency is over.”

Maybe Harris missed this part, but Congress already voted to end the expanded SNAP benefits ($95 extra per month per household) authorized during the pandemic. The supplemental benefits are due to expire at the end of the month in Maryland and other states. That’s a provision of the spending bill approved by Congress in December. And guess who voted, along with 200 other House Republicans, against that spending bill?

Good guess: Andy Harris.

So he’s talking about cutting benefits already due to expire, and in Maryland that will mean approximately $1 billion less in SNAP disbursements to households across the state, according to the nonprofit Maryland Hunger Solutions. That’s not just a hit to struggling families, but to the food industry, points out Michael J. Wilson, director of the advocacy organization.

So what’s wrong with Andy Harris?

Nothing, if you like extremists who make the tired Republican suggestion that too many Americans receive SNAP benefits, or that people should be required to work to get them when, in fact, the Census Bureau shows that nearly 80% of households on SNAP have at least one employed person and a third have at least two people who are working. SNAP serves the working poor.

But calling for cuts makes Harris sound like a hard-heeled moralist against sloth when, actually, he’s a classic denialist about the millions of Americans struggling at the bottom or just above it.

As the new chair of the House subcommittee overseeing funding for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and other agencies, Harris could toughen SNAP eligibility requirements for low-income and poor Americans, though the Bloomberg report suggested his powers to change the program will be limited.


Still, Harris has again put himself in position, as he did with Obamacare years ago, of opposing a reasonable government subsidy that helps many of his own constituents.

Who benefits from SNAP?

In 2021, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington took a deep dive into government data on SNAP and came up with a state-by-state rundown. It found that, in Maryland, 64% of SNAP households have children in them and 38% have older or disabled adults. Nearly 80% of SNAP households had incomes at or below the federally-established poverty line.

The study found that SNAP lifted nearly 100,000 people, half of them children, above the poverty line in Maryland each year between 2013 and 2017.

But there are thousands more living below or just above the line. According to the most recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.3% of Maryland’s population was considered officially poor. (In Somerset County, within Harris’ congressional district, the rate was more than twice as high, at 23.6%.)

And keep this in mind: While the national poverty rate has fallen, the government’s standard for poverty remains unrealistic.


Only last month, when it was published in the Federal Register, did the government-set poverty line hit $30,000 a year for a family of four. The last time I checked, in 2021, a family of four was considered poor if its annual income was $26,500 or less. The new standard acknowledges inflation and the recent rise in consumer prices.

Still, no one who lives in the real world and pays real food bills and real rent will consider $30,000 for a family of four the threshold for poverty.

United Way decided to come up with a better measurement, called ALICE. That stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.” It calculates the minimum costs of a “survival budget” for housing, child care, health care, food, taxes and transportation for working families in Baltimore and 23 Maryland counties. It then determines the number of ALICE hardship households — those that do not earn enough money to meet the costs of living. It’s an examination of the real challenges faced by the working poor.

In Baltimore, in the last survey, 55% of households were determined to be ALICE households. In Andy Harris’s congressional district, the percentage of hardship households was above 40% in some counties, above 30% in others.

What’s wrong with Andy Harris?

Plenty. But he keeps getting reelected.