Today the Senate Agriculture Committee is holding a hearing on fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — better known as food stamps. The hearing is at the behest of Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS). According to Bloomberg News, Roberts is using the hearing as a beachhead for a larger plan to target food stamps for cuts in the upcoming farm bill.
Despite being widely credited for keeping food on American families’ dinner tables during the recent Great Recession and recovery, food stamps are continually targeted by Republicans for the sheer size of the program. In the past few years there have been numerous food stamp hearings pushed by the GOP. Now SNAP also has a low rate of fraud, but there are recent revelations about state reporting data influencing error rates that need to be addressed.
But the real crime is there’s been not one single hearing devoted to other farm bill programs demonstrably rife with fraud.
Thanks in part to Senator Roberts; crop insurance subsidies have become the de facto form of taxpayer funded farm welfare. He is such a vocal defender of the program Roberts once joked that anyone wanting to cut the lucrative subsidies for mega farms should be “hung by the neck until they are dead.” Like other farm subsidies, the bulk of crop insurance subsidies flow to the largest and wealthiest operations. And these recipients largely vote Republican and are credited with helping put Trump in the White House.
So when President Trump’s budget looked to cut $28 billion from crop insurance, Roberts met with Trump and begged him to reverse course. Trump, who calls Roberts “Farm Guy,” obliged.
By looking at recent cases of crop insurance fraud, it’s clear that there is a concerted, coordinated effort by congressional “lawmakers” to shield the massive theft and abuse of taxpayer dollars. Consider the widespread fraud just in 2017:
– A Missouri, farmer was indicted by a federal grand jury in January for a nearly $800,000 fraud scheme to receive federally subsidized crop insurance payments to which he was not entitled.
– In February a Wisconsin farmer was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay over $228,000 in restitution for overstating his actual soybean and corn production history to increase his insurance reimbursement in later years.
– In May another Wisconsin farmer was sentenced for submitting $246,606 worth of fraudulent insurance claims during the 2011 crop season.
– In June, a Georgia farmer agreed to pay the federal government $675,000 to settle a suit for making false crop insurance claims.
– In July a Louisiana farmer was found guilty for receiving more than $1.6 million in farm subsidy payments to which he was not entitled.
This is just a sampler from the start of the year. Some recent fraud dollar amounts are at the Bond villain level. In 2013 Feds broke up a North Carolina “crop insurance fraud ring” that stole at least $100 million from the government-backed program. And in 2015, the National Law Review reported:
Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company paid $44 million, one of the largest settlements in the program’s history, to settle False Claims Act allegations that it knowingly issued insurance policies that were ineligible under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s federal crop insurance program and falsified documents.
The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly warned about fraud problems in the crop insurance program. Economist Edward Lotterman wrote in May “There probably is more abuse and fraud in federal crop insurance than in food stamps,” Former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in 2013.“The percentage of error and fraud rate is higher in crop insurance than it is in SNAP.”
Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN), ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee and a reliable enabler of subsidies for industrial mega farms, often votes more with Republicans and President Trump than his Democratic colleagues. So it sent shockwaves through combine country when he said this in 2013:
There is less fraud in food stamps than in any government program. There is five times as much fraud in crop insurance than in food stamps.
And in 2015, when one Ohio farmer was confronted for his role in a $1,560,000 farm subsidy scam, he inadvertently blurted out the truth:
“If I’m guilty, then everyone else is, too, because everyone else does the same thing,” Wolfe said. Wolfe seemed to imply during the open meeting that misconduct regularly occurs at the agency that provides farm insurance.
When Senator Roberts faced a tough reelection in 2014 and was desperate to T-shirt gun red meat to conservative Kansas voters, he said of the food stamp program “I just want to restore integrity to the program. You’ve got a lot of situations where folks are really gaming the system, and that’s not right.”
So if it’s about integrity and gaming the system, why no hearings for crop insurance and other farm subsidies that clearly have problems? Well for starters it would highlight problems for subsidies going to stalwart GOP voters and donors. That’s not a good look when you’re pressured to pass a new farm bill ASAP. And even a cursory examination of crop insurance’s gross and pervasive high-dollar fraud would bring howls from the powerful farm lobby that strikes fear into spineless members of Congress. There is no comparable lobby for poor and starving Americans.
When House Ag Chair Mike Conaway held his “soup to nuts” hearing series examination of food stamps, the defense of his move was that an in-depth examination helped stave off cuts. If that’s true, then crop insurance – which has a Heritage target on its back – should benefit from a public investigation.
SNAP is a good – though not perfect — example of successful public policy. Try to imagine it not being in place when over 40 million Americans couldn’t afford food. But if you defraud the program, Uncle Sam’s boot should be in your ass, because you’re jeopardizing a hungry child’s next meal. And poor rural Kansans rely much more on food stamps than farm subsidies.
I suspect the deal Roberts made with Trump to spare the fraud ridden crop insurance and farm subsidy programs means cuts need to be found elsewhere.
Hence today’s food stamp hearing.