Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is departing from the president’s plan to overhaul U.S. food aid, reaffirming on Wednesday that he still does not believe the food stamp system is “broken” or requires any fundamental change.
Instead, Perdue believes that reduced spending on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could be achieved by “a growing economy and falling unemployment,” a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture said in a statement.
That differs sharply from the administration’s proposal for cutting SNAP, which would achieve the vast bulk of its $193 billion in savings by kicking the costs down to state government.
That proposal, which the administration released Tuesday as part of its first major budget package, provoked immediate outcry from anti-hunger advocates and Congressional Democrats. Now many are hoping Perdue, who has called SNAP “important and effective,” will help moderate the administration’s position on a program that currently feeds 44 million Americans.
Perdue affirmed his position on SNAP during a meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture Wednesday, when Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a fierce critic of the SNAP cuts, asked him about statements he made to the House Agriculture Committee last week.
“You stated -- and this is a quote -- ‘SNAP has been a very important and effective program,’ “ DeLauro said. “And that as far as you’re concerned, quote, ‘we have no proposed changes. You don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken.’ Do you still -- and I have to ask you for yes or nos, because my time here is going to be limited -- do you still feel those words to be true?”
“Absolutely,” Perdue answered. He later added that he supported stricter work requirements, which are a lesser component of the administration’s cuts.
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The exchange was one of many during Wednesday’s hearing when Perdue was asked to defend or explain cuts in the Trump administration’s proposed budget.
Some of the largest cuts come to the SNAP program, where Trump proposed reductions of $193 billion, or roughly a quarter of the program’s funding, over the next 10 years. Those cuts would be achieved largely by requiring states to assume more responsibility for the program -- a change that critics say many underfunded states will not be able to make -- and by limiting aid to unemployed adults, seniors and large families.
In addition to the cuts to SNAP, the president’s budget proposed deep cuts to many of USDA’s other popular programs, including farm subsidies, agricultural research and crop insurance. But it does not appear as if Sec. Perdue is on board with all of them.
Asked about two foreign food aid programs that Trump’s budget would zero out, Perdue said arguments that they help U.S. farmers and address hunger are “essentially irrefutable.”
And pressed repeatedly about the importance of rural development, a USDA mission area that would be gutted by Trump’s budget and a separate departmental reorganization, Perdue said he considered it a priority.
“The new motto of USDA is ‘do right and feed everyone,’” Perdue said during the hearing.
Notably, Perdue -- who was confirmed to the USDA’s top job in April -- had no hand in the development of this budget. Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Young said Tuesday the budget was developed before Perdue arrived, largely by the Office of Management and Budget.
That sort of late start is unusual for the department, where secretaries have been in place during budget development for the last three administrations. Both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush saw their agriculture secretaries confirmed the day they took office, and President Clinton’s nominee was confirmed within days. Perdue’s nomination paperwork was not formally filed, however, until March 10 -- and he reminded both reporters and lawmakers, in two separate statements, that this week was only his fifth in office.
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Still, Perdue has already managed a great deal of influence in his short time as secretary: He’s credited, in large part, with dissuading the president from pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In late April, only days after he was confirmed, Perdue met with Trump and showed him a map of the regions that would suffer economic losses if Trump withdrew. The president quickly backed down from his stated plan to announce the termination of the agreement.
Speaking off the record, in order to discuss ongoing developments, congressional staff on both sides of the aisle expressed optimism that Perdue could have a similar effect on the budget. Like withdrawing from NAFTA, it is not popular with farm groups. It has also been condemned by anti-hunger organizations.
Perdue, for his part, has noted that the budget is ultimately in the hands of Congress. Asked specifically about future cuts to SNAP, Perdue, Young and other department spokespersons have said such structural changes could only be made through legislation -- which is unlikely, given widespread bipartisan support for anti-hunger programs.
“The legislative proposal going forward is obviously something you and all your members in Congress will deal with, and [you will] have your stamp upon that,” Perdue said Wednesday, in response to comments from Rep. DeLauro.
“Great,” DeLauro said. “Because there’s a number of us who will in fact put a stamp on the program.”