Why a Separate Vote on Food Stamps Is a Bad Idea for House Republicans

After the failure of the Republican-dominated House to pass a new Farm Bill, party leaders are considering splitting it into two bills. If that happens, the Republicans might end up doing their constituents more harm than good.

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After the failure of the Republican-dominated House to pass a new Farm Bill—omnibus legislation that includes subsidy support for farmers as well as the federal food stamp program—party leaders are considering splitting the parts into two bills. If that happens, the Republicans might end up doing their constituents more harm than good.

For nearly two years, Congress has been extending the existing Farm Bill, which expired in late 2012, in hopes of revamping legislation that has grown swollen and creaky over the course of decades of tweaking. This year, as it was last year, a key point of political contention has been the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—food stamps. Republican lawmakers have called for substantial cuts to the program, which, as of April, provided assistance to 47 million Americans. (As the Wall Street Journal notes, this is nearly one-sixth of everyone in the country.)

Roll Call had the first report on the new proposal, which would allow passage of the Republican-supported farm subsidies and postpone discussion of the Republican-opposed food stamps.

House Republican leaders have decided to drop food stamps from the farm bill and are whipping the farm-only portion of the bill for a vote that will likely come this week, according to a GOP leadership aide.

The nutrition portion of the bill would be dealt with later.

("Whipping" is a term referring to the process of counting and securing votes for a bill.)

As a political move, it's questionable. Slate's Dave Weigel breaks down why this runs counter to conventional political wisdom.

[I]f the House were—please hold your laughter—trying for a workable bipartisan solution to the farm bill collapse, the food stamp funding would stay, because that's the deal. Urban liberals get their food stamp money; conservatives get their farm pork.

In other words, the Farm Bill is bloated and complex because it contains things that both parties like. But according to the data, the Republicans should be the ones hoping to bolster and extend food stamps. After all, it's people in their states who are more likely to be enrolled in the program.

Using that April 2013 data, via the Food Research and Action Center, we put together an overview SNAP enrollment across the country.

In terms of raw numbers, it's the largest states that have the biggest enrollment, of course. After all, they have more people. (Darker colors in the maps below indicate a higher population or percentage.)

But as a function of population, that looks much different. (This uses July 2012 population estimates.)

A good indicator of a state's politics is the make-up of its Senate delegation. The map below shows how many Republican senators a state has: two, one, or zero. Note the apparent correlation between states with more Republican delegations and states with higher percentages of people on food stamps.

We can make that correlation more explicit. Here is the percentage of the population of each group of states—those with two, one, or zero Republican senators—that are enrolled in SNAP. As the states become less Republican, a smaller percentage of the population relies on that support.

As a function of raw numbers, of course, the bluer states have larger populations receiving assistance.

But politics doesn't work on raw numbers. Those Republican members of the House—and the senators from their states that would need to pass these bills—need to worry about the nearly 17 percent of their states that are on assistance. Whether that's the 22 percent of Mississippi's 660,000 people or the 19 percent of Georgia's 1.9 million, the effect is the same: a big section of the voting population who might hold food stamp cuts against them.

Photo: Rep. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania tries living on food stamps, April, 2012. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.