Roberts Promises Food-Stamp Scrutiny in Upcoming Farm Bill

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts signaled that he wants to use the next farm bill to target fraud in the food-stamp program, a move that could endanger the bipartisan support he needs to get the measure through Congress.

"There are significant quality control problems with the SNAP program," Roberts said in an emailed statement. "That’s a $70 billion program, so any problems will need to be given a hard look."

The Senate Agriculture Committee plans to hold a hearing Thursday focusing on misreporting of costs in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which spent $66.5 billion on benefits in the 2016 fiscal year. A national payment-error rate of 3.2 percent, which includes both over- and under-payment of benefits, was last reported in 2014. 

Since then, the USDA Inspector General has found evidence of irregularities in state reporting. Advocates for tightening rules say states have an interest in lowballing error rates in an effort to get more federal funds for their states.

"Fraud and abuse are problems that threaten the integrity of the program and take resources away from people who need them," said USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh in an email. "It should absolutely be part of the discussion."

Roberts’s move could signal a more conservative approach to the farm bill, which relies on bipartisan support -- including from Democrats who strongly defend the food-stamp program -- to be enacted by Congress.

About 41.3 million people received food-stamp payments in June, the most recent month of available data. That is the lowest level since June 2010, as enrollments have gradually declined with the improving economy.

The next farm bill, which reauthorizes subsidies for crop producers and nutrition aid for the needy, is due by Sept. 30, 2018. Leaders of both congressional agricultural committees have said they want to get a new law through Congress this year.