It became apparent around the turn of the year that neither Mitch McConnell nor Donald Trump was interested in Paul Ryan’s fantasy of making 2018 a festive congressional playground for conservative “welfare reform” and “entitlement reform” fantasies. At that point, it seemed plausible to imagine that the year would proceed without a lot of demagoguing from Republicans in Washington about the shiftless “takers” who laughed at the taxpaying “makers” who provided them a comfortable living via Uncle Sucker’s safety-net programs.
But there was one item of mandatory business on the congressional agenda that provides an opportunity for such GOP “messaging” (if that’s the right euphemism for demonizing the poor), and it looks like Trump is seizing upon it: a farm bill that includes provisions reauthorizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a. food stamps), or SNAP. According to The Wall Street Journal, Trump is demanding tougher work requirements for the program in exchange for letting the whole bill with its huge farm subsidies and support system for agriculture make it past his desk:
President Donald Trump is expected to tell senior lawmakers in a meeting this week that he will veto the farm bill if it doesn’t include tighter work requirements for people receiving food stamps, according to two people familiar with his deliberations.
That stance would immediately intensify the fight around work requirements, the most controversial element of the farm bill, and start a new debate over spending on federal safety-net programs ahead of November’s midterm elections.
That would seem to be the idea.
Trump’s hardly the first conservative to make a farm-bill debate “about” SNAP. It’s become a regular feature of such debates; the last farm bill, in fact, was delayed for two years due to wrangling over SNAP funding cuts that House conservatives were demanding. And more generally, conservatives unsurprisingly object to the traditional politics of the food-stamps program, which began life as an ingenious and remarkably successful way to build urban support for agricultural programs while also steering additional dollars into the pockets of farmers and retailers.
There are two factors that make the demand for “tougher work requirements” clever, though. First, it doesn’t necessarily get its proponents embroiled in the funding fights that usually accompany farm-bill debates. And second, SNAP already has work requirements for most able-bodied beneficiaries. All Trump is proposing at this point is to raise the maximum age of those covered by them from 50 to 62, and “make it harder for states to exempt vulnerable individuals, such as those who live in high-unemployment areas.” So it won’t be that hard for Trump and his allies to accept some sort of nominal concessions and declare a victory for “toughening,” just as it won’t be that hard for his opponents to make nominal concessions with respect to requirements that already exist.
It’s a pretty good formula for base-mobilizing rhetoric about welfare bums without a lot of risk of sabotaging an entire farm bill. As with so many Trump gambits, of course, it’s not clear whether he knows exactly what he is doing or is just blundering along the path of least resistance.