Continuing Resolution Passes, Government Funded Through December 22
Last week, the House and Senate passed a bill to fund the government for two weeks, through December 22. The bill—a Continuing Resolution (CR)—was signed by President Trump on Friday.
Along with temporary funding, the CR includes a provision that will allow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to provide CHIP funds to emergency shortfall states that are imminently running out of money for the program. This is not a long-term solution for CHIP, as funding expired two months ago and legislation is needed to fully fund the program.
Over the next two weeks, lawmakers will work towards an agreement on a third continuing resolution. Discussions also continue over a budget agreement, which will be needed in order to pass an omnibus appropriations bill. As budget talks are projected to take longer than two weeks, lawmakers are most likely to pass a third CR through mid-January or early February, and then an omnibus at that point.
Lawmakers are in talks regarding several issues that might become part of a third CR. This includes a solution for the 2 million people known as “DREAMers” who came to the U.S. as undocumented minors. Majority leadership has pushed for a DREAM fix to be coupled with measures such as increased border enforcement, while Democrats are pushing for a “clean DREAM” fix.
Another sticking point for the third CR is health care. Senator Collins (R-ME) has obtained assurances from Congressional leadership and the President that the tax bill—which, in its Senate version, would eliminate the individual mandate for health care—will not move forward without addressing Cost Sharing Reductions (CSRs) and a fix for the Pay as You Go “PAYGO” rule, which would trigger $25 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare and billions in cuts to other programs, including WIC. Both PAYGO and CSR fixes may be included in a third CR.
A third round of disaster relief funding is likely to be included in a third CR. Lawmakers are in discussions about the details of such a provision, including whether or not to offset the funds. The National WIC Association has put forward a request for $14 million in additional funds for WIC infrastructure grants to be made available to WIC agencies impacted by presidentially declared emergencies. We are currently in conversation with appropriators regarding this request.
Risks of Shutdown?
If lawmakers are not able to come to an agreement over a third CR and what it will include, the federal government would experience a shutdown. Given the deadline of December 22, immediately before the Christmas holiday, lawmakers on both sides are motivated to come to an agreement that would avoid a potentially damaging shutdown. NWA will continue to update members on this process and the likelihood of shutdown. As always, we encourage all state agencies to be prepared with a plan should a shutdown occur. Now is a good time to dust off and review notes from your 2013 shutdown experience, just in case.
Tax Plan Heads to Conference Committee, Outcome Uncertain
Last week, both the Senate and the House of Representatives approved motions to send their already passed tax legislation to a conference committee. The conference committee will meet in an open session this Wednesday as it attempts to negotiate a final bill to be approved by both houses of Congress. Republican leaders are committed to finalizing their tax legislation in the next two weeks.
There are several key differences between the House and Senate proposals. Negotiators must strike a compromise on whether to eliminate the state-and-local tax (SALT) deduction, estate tax, student loan deductions, and the individual health insurance mandate under the Affordable Care Act, among several other contested provisions. Both the House and Senate versions slashed the corporate tax rate to 20% and Republican negotiators will seek to preserve that significant cut while raising enough revenue to satisfy reconciliation rules. Per Senate rules, the final proposal must not add more than $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit over ten years.
Likely Risks to Middle and Low-Income Taxpayers, Social Safety Net
The effects of this tax package on low-income and middle-class families cannot be understated. Economists agree that the legislation will transfer wealth to corporations and the already wealthy, whereas low-income and middle-class families will be more heavily taxed. Furthermore, federal revenues will decrease significantly. Several Republican policymakers are already discussing plans for "welfare reform" next year, and decreased federal revenues – combined with the dramatic increase in the federal deficit – will almost certainly be used to justify cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other critical programs that support the social safety net, including WIC.
Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), who is not on the conference committee, is threatening to withhold her vote on the final package unless her amendments are included in the final package and two bipartisan bills to stabilize the health insurance markets are passed. Her vote may prove to be the deciding factor, as the path to passage in the Senate narrows substantially if Democrats prevail in the special election in Alabama on Tuesday, December 12th.
USDA Promises More State Flexibility in Administering SNAP
Last week, USDA published a press release stating that the department will provide more local control and flexibility to states administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This statement reflects a letter sent by Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Administrator and Acting Deputy Undersecretary Brandon Lipps to all state SNAP commissioners two weeks ago. While the letter and statement remain vague about exactly what flexibilities they plan to provide to states, certain states are likely to be empowered to pursue targeted measures such as stricter work requirements and/or drug testing of SNAP recipients. FNS plans to release details about specific new state flexibilities in the coming weeks.
Misunderstanding the Realities of Poverty in America
NWA is concerned that the press release and letter indicate that the Administration seems interested in making it harder to participate in nutrition programs – with both near and long-term health and nutrition implications for vulnerable families and for WIC. Further, the language reveals a grave lack of understanding of the realities faced by recipients of SNAP and other social safety net benefits. Secretary Perdue is quoted in the press release as saying, “SNAP was created to provide people with the help they need to feed themselves and their families, but it was not intended to be a permanent lifestyle.” This sentiment is echoed in Mr. Lipps’ letter to state SNAP commissioners: “The American dream has never been to live on government benefits...We must facilitate the transition for individuals and families to become independent [i.e. work], specifically by…holding our recipients accountable for personal responsibility.”
These statements indicate that leaders at USDA believe recipients of SNAP are choosing not to work, and should be held personally responsible for their lack of initiative in finding a job. The reality is, many SNAP recipients are already employed, but in low-wage jobs making it hard to make ends meet. For those recipients who are unemployed, it is most often because they are prevented from working (due to a disability or other barrier), have recently lost a job, or have been looking for work and are facing employment challenges.
The press release also says that USDA plans to crack down on “waste, fraud, [and] abuse” of SNAP. This classic language is often used to undermine government benefit programs by claiming that recipients are abusing program benefits and committing fraud. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which released a statement in response to last week’s announcement from USDA, counters this claim: “There are no studies,” says Director of the UCS Food and Environment Program, Ricardo Salvador, “not even ones by the USDA, that have found any evidence of widespread participant abuse of SNAP benefits.” USDA’s desire to crack down on participant abuse of SNAP is therefore not based on evidence, but rather an erroneous stereotype of SNAP recipients as people who want to “cheat the system.”
In short, a lack of understanding, sensitivity, and empathy for people receiving SNAP benefits is likely to lead USDA to enact draconian policies which will ultimately hurt recipients and may lead to people being kicked off this and other vital programs. USDA’s push for changes to SNAP is a harbinger for broader welfare reform, which is expected to be the Trump Administration’s next big priority after tax reform.