Food Stamp Showdown: Sen. Sessions Demands 'Immediate' USDA 'Explanation' of Its Anti-Fraud Efforts

Continuing his fight against costly food stamp fraud and abuse, Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requesting an immediate explanation of the USDA’s oversight procedures combating food stamp fraud.

Sen. Sessions’s move came in response to a USDA press release announcing “new tactics to combat fraud and enhance SNAP program integrity.”

As Sen. Sessions explains in his letter:

I have a responsibility on behalf of taxpayers to hold federal agencies accountable for how public funds are being spent. I would therefore ask that the Committee be immediately provided with a thorough explanation of all oversight actions your Department is taking, as well as a list of recommended federal reforms that would reduce waste, inefficiency, and abuse in the food stamp program. I would further ask for a follow-up report within the next sixty days detailing the findings of all oversight that USDA will have conducted….Unmonitored welfare programs, over time, can hurt the very people we are seeking to help. Our goal is not only to improve the outlook for our indebted Treasury, but to help needy Americans achieve a better future through work and personal development.

Annually, the nation’s food stamp program–officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–costs taxpayers $89 billion, a figure that has more than doubled under President Barack Obama. The number of Americans receiving food stamps has skyrocketed in recent years. Today, 46 million Americans–1 out of 7 citizens–receive food stamps, a jump of more than two-thirds prior to Mr. Obama’s vast expansion of the program.

Sen. Sessions’s letter to Sec. Vilsack points out that the spike in food stamps has outpaced the nation’s rise in unemployment and is largely the result of the so-called categorical eligibility rules that automatically gives food stamps to individuals eligible for other federal programs, regardless of income levels.

While the weak economy has increased the number of people on food stamps, spending on the program has dramatically outpaced the rise in unemployment. In just ten years the food stamp budget has quadrupled. The number of Americans receiving food stamps has grown from about 1 in 50 Americans when the program expanded nationally, to 1 in 7 today. Between 2001 and 2006, unemployment averaged around 5 percent but spending on food stamps actually doubled. Meanwhile, according to research by University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, most of the increased spending on welfare programs (including food stamps) since 2007 is the result of expansions in eligibility, rather than increases in the number of people who would have been eligible under pre-recession rules.

The letter also instructs Mr. Vilsack to produce within 60 days a detailed follow-up report on the results of his department’s anti-fraud tactics.

Sen. Sessions is not alone in his concern over food stamp fraud. Last June, the Wall Street Journal issued a report declaring a “food stamp crime wave.” And last August, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney called out Mr. Vilsack by name when the Agriculture Secretary suggested that food stamps are a form of “economic stimulus” and “put people to work.”

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In response to Mr. Vilsack’s comments, Mr. Romney said:

I think that there’s some folks like Tom Vilsack and President Obama himself that imagine that if you just throw money at people, that somehow that will make the economy better. But we’re out there borrowing money from the Chinese, to hand out money here, and that is not going to get America working again.

Mr. Vilsack’s view that food stamps are a form of economic stimulus and a jobs creator presumably suggest he believes more food stamps will create more jobs. Given this view, look for a potential showdown between the USDA and those fighting for improved fiscal oversight.