House bill would allow drug testing for food stamps

Posted at 6:44 PM, Feb 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-11 19:33:22-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — A key House Republican is renewing a GOP push to allow drug tests for low-income food stamp recipients, a move to help states like Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has sued the federal government to permit screening.

Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt unveiled the measure on Thursday as Republicans look to find savings in the program. Aderholt says that states could choose whether they wanted to allow drug testing, so the legislation wouldn't be a mandate. He says it's common sense to create drug programs for those who need help.

"This is a compassionate way to try and help these people who have issues, instead of turning the head," said Aderholt, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees spending for the Agriculture Department, which administers the food stamp program.

The bill is designed to aid states like Wisconsin, where former GOP presidential candidate Walker has sought to require food stamp recipients to undergo drug screening. Walker's administration filed suit against the Agriculture Department, which has said federal law bars the practice.

The government says states cannot impose new standards of eligibility under the law, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said drug testing recipients is intrusive and ineffective.

The legislation would find savings — and cut benefits for some recipients — by making it harder for people to become automatically eligible for food stamps if they already participate in a federal heating assistance program. Aderholt's office says the estimated savings are around $1.2 billion, with about half of that awarded to states for drug treatment programs.

The food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, served more than 46 million Americans and cost $74 billion last year. That's twice the program's 2008 cost.

Though he has not weighed in on Aderholt's legislation, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has long said he wants to overhaul the food stamp program, along with other federal assistance for the poor. He has in the past proposed budgets that would convert federal food stamp dollars into block grants for the states, a move that would cut spending for the program.

Aderholt says he hopes his legislation is a first step in a larger GOP effort to overhaul the food stamp program. In 2013, House Republican leaders tried unsuccessfully to cut the program by 5 percent annually by passing broad new work requirements as part of a massive farm bill. The bill also included drug testing for recipients.

House leaders held up the bill for more than a year, insisting that money for farm programs be paired with significant cuts to food stamps. Democrats balked, and the final bill included a much smaller cut and no allowances for drug testing.

That effort was before Republicans won the Senate in 2014. Since then, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas has led what he calls a comprehensive, multi-year review of the program to see what's working. He said last year that "either huge reforms or small reforms" could come from that process.

Aderholt did not rule out adding his legislation to this year's agriculture spending bill, which he writes. But he said he will try and move it through Conaway's committee first.