The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program, is once again becoming a battleground for fiscal conservatives, welfare reformers, big-government advocates, and the food police. As Congress begins the process of reauthorization of the next Farm Bill, the skirmishes will become more intense, since SNAP makes up 80 percent of the total cost of the legislation.

There are several issues that need to be addressed, starting with the bureaucratic nightmare of administering and overseeing the program. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly highlighted lax oversight systems, caused in part by the dual jurisdiction over the program. The federal government funds SNAP, but the program is run by states and sometimes counties.

Over the years, as states’ budgets have tightened, the Department of Agriculture has permitted 42 of them to bypass income and asset verification tests by using a broad-based categorical eligibility waiver. The waiver enables any SNAP applicant who is already receiving even nominal benefits through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or the Supplemental Security Income cash assistance program to qualify for food stamps.

In 1996, Congress added a work requirement for able-bodied adults with no dependents. But, like the income and asset verification waivers, many states have obtained a variety of exemptions from having to enforce the work requirements. On Dec. 5, USDA announced new steps aimed at helping state and local officials improve program integrity and reinstate work requirements. Several governors, including Govs. Rick Snyder, R-Mich., Bill Haslam, R-Tenn., and Paul LePage, R-Maine, had already begun to institute those reforms. The Trump administration has also telegraphed its intention to have states begin to contribute matching funds to the SNAP program.

The SNAP program is highly vulnerable to abuse and is out of compliance with federal law that requires agencies to measure improper payment rates annually. A May 17 USDA report on USDA’s improper payments stated that the agency “did not report an improper payment estimate for SNAP.” After reviewing all 53 state quality control systems, auditors found that in 42 of the 53, USDA was “unable to validate data provided by the state. There are no statistical procedures that can accurately adjust for this unreliability and allow for a calculation of the national error rate.”

USDA auditors also found that SNAP’s quality control processes were “vulnerable to abuse at the state official level due to conflicting interests between accurately reporting true error rates and incurring penalties or mitigating errors or receiving a bonus for exceeding standards.” SNAP was the only one of 18 programs on the Office of Management and Budget’s “high-priority programs” list to fail to provide any information about improper payments.

Adding to the administrative failures and lack of control over improper payments, officials from both parties have become fixated on nannying SNAP beneficiaries by limiting what they can and cannot eat. The demonization of soda, for example, raises the question of the next type of food or beverage that would be excluded or restricted.

Such decisions needlessly empower unaccountable bureaucrats and the lobbyists who circle them like buzzards, willing to spend millions to influence the list of allowed consumables. And these efforts expand the power and scope of government activity in a quixotic attempt to socially engineer human behavior. Putting soda on a SNAP banned substances list puts it on par with alcohol and tobacco, which are also prohibited purchases under the SNAP program.

It would be hard to imagine a more wasteful and misguided, not to mention degrading, use of scarce taxpayer resources than to police food purchases among the millions of SNAP recipients, especially when the USDA and the states have failed to meet even basic management and oversight benchmarks for the program.

In the upcoming debate over the next Farm Bill, Congress would do well to reject efforts to micromanage recipients’ choices of food and drink and instead make program integrity and rigorous accountability on behalf of taxpayers its central focus. Indeed, the latter two objectives can be met right now by exercising greater oversight at the federal and state level.

Leslie K. Paige is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is vice president for policy and communications at Citizens Against Government Waste.

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