During the first part of the Obama Presidency, the liberal-left was able to say, with some level of effectiveness, that any GOP complaints about deficits and debt rang hollow given how much deficits and debt had increased under President George W. Bush. Anyone who followed budget and appropriations battles during those years knows that Democrats called for more spending in every non-defense appropriations bill, opposed the creation of Medicare Part D because it was not generous enough (a preposterous charge), and would have spent even more on the bloated farm and highways bills of the day.
However, the charge of bi-partisan complacency for our nation’s severe fiscal crisis does have some merit, just not in the narrative laid out by the left. The Food Stamp program, also known as “SNAP” (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), is a textbook case of how the bi-partisanship has led this nation to the current fiscal abyss. Within the long list of massive changes to federal spending programs that must be undertaken if we are to return to a glide path to financial solvency is a repeal of the federal entitlement to SNAP.
The history of food stamps stretches back to the 1930s, but the key issue is that by the 1970s it became an entitlement, subject to certain conditions. Many Congressional Republicans, including Senator Dole led the charge over a series of years to create this new entitlement. Spending on the program has generally increased annually ever since and now in 2011 is at record levels over $75 billion in outlays and more than 40 million participants.
The famous Contract With America in 1994 included a number of serious attempts to reign in the federal behemoth, including a repeal of the federal food stamp entitlement. Naturally, most Democrats oppose curbing any federal entitlement-spending program, any such action is an anathema to their DNA. However, President Clinton did ultimately, famously end up agreeing to repeal the central welfare entitlement from the Social Security Act of 1935, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Momentum and energy from the historic 1994 mid-term elections was fueling a serious review of federal entitlement spending programs for the first time in DC since Social Security curbs were defeated in 1985.
Unfortunately, the drive to repeal the federal food stamp entitlement was derailed before the process could get started by a block of farm state Republicans in the House, led by former Congressman and current US Senator from Kansas, Pat Roberts. Now to be fair to the then Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, he led some of the sharpest reductions in outlays for farm spending in 1995 and 1996 ever implemented. The problem with reducing outlays and the future baselines is that the basic structures are still in place. This allows for future Democrat Congresses and Presidents to then expand eligibility and watch spending explode. History shows us this is exactly what happened in the past 15 years.
The Ryan budget resolution passed in the spring by the newly minted House GOP majority includes similar provisions to repeal the entitlement and block grant a capped dollar amount to the states. While these provisions have not received the fanfare of Medicare reforms and others, it is an indispensible budgetary reform in the very steep hill we will all have to climb to restore some short and long term sanity to our budget process.
Any Republican candidate for President, Senate or Congress must support repealing this entitlement or we the voters cannot take their fiscal conservatism seriously. One added benefit to this budget change is that it will force state governments, who loudly boast of having to balance their budgets but then do so with huge infusions of federal (borrowed) cash will have to put up or shut up. They will have to structure and provide spending in this area in a way that is far less generous, significantly more focused to those actually in need of “temporary” assistance, and take ownership and accountability since they are closer to the people.
Everyone with a pulse understands that no Democrat is truly serious in DC about reducing the dependency on spending programs, but conservatives have long harboured suspicions about whether the GOP in DC have the wherewithal, too. Repealing the food stamp entitlement is a true acid test and getting all serious GOP candidates for President and US Senate on the record for this issue will go a long way towards making 2013 the most important year for the American republic since at least 1942.