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Debt Limit Vote Offers a Preview of GOP Attacks If Party Controls Congress

The rush proposal cuts funding for federal agencies and expands work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (left) listens to Majority Whip Don Emmer during an event to celebrate the House passing an anti-trans school sports bill outside the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

House Republicans narrowly passed their controversial plan for raising the federal debt limit and forcing sweeping cuts to federal programs and the social safety net in a party line vote on Wednesday. The only full hearing on the legislation was held on the eve of the vote, and sparks were flying as lawmakers from both parties testified before the House Committee on Rules.

Rep. Jim McGovern, the committee’s ranking Democrat, suggested House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was rushing to pass the bill before the public had time to read the fine print.

“Maybe that’s why we’re moving so fast — maybe Mr. McCarthy doesn’t want people to realize what’s in the bill, and I don’t blame him,” McGovern told the committee. “This is a ransom note to the American people that makes devastating draconian cuts to programs that help the poor, the hungry, the sick and the vulnerable.”

In a familiar refrain, Republicans have claimed they are not targeting the poor and vulnerable, but those “able-bodied” freeloaders and who enjoy welfare benefits instead of getting a job. At issue are proposals to cut funding for federal agencies and add work requirements to Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income families, and expand work requirements for older adults who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly called food stamps.

Experts say work requirements are much more effective at kicking vulnerable people off assistance than helping them find gainful employment, especially with so many low-wage jobs offering inconsistent hours and no health coverage. The majority of SNAP and Medicaid beneficiaries who can work do work, and the available data suggest many eligible people could lose out on groceries and health care simply for failing to meet bureaucratic reporting requirements.

“The clear lessons from the work requirements in SNAP and [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] over the years, is that they are really counterproductive,” said Heather Hahn, the associate vice president at the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population, in a press call this week. “Work requirements seem really sensible on the face of it, but when we really scratch the service, we can see they can actually undermine the employment they seek to encourage.”

The debt limit bill won’t go far in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and the White House calls it a “reckless attempt to extract extreme concessions as a condition for the United States simply paying the bills.” However, the legislation is the result of intense internal wrangling among House Republicans, providing a preview of the GOP’s potential path toward reducing federal spending if they were to win control of Congress.

Currently, that path avoids cuts to Medicare, Social Security and the Pentagon by running right through the pocketbooks of low-income and rural people who may struggle to navigate bureaucracy or maintain gainful employment. Having worked to reverse the Democratic plan for reducing the deficit by beefing up the Internal Revenue Service and closing loopholes for wealthy tax cheats, Republicans argued they could not raise the debt limit — which Congress must do to pay the government’s bills — without making cuts to federal programs and the safety net.

“Republicans tell us we need tax cuts for billionaires, but when it comes to programs for regular people, it’s cut, cut, cut,” McGovern said.

Republicans pointed to Wisconsin, where nearly 80 percent of voters recently approved a ballot question that asked whether able-bodied, childless adults should be required to work in order to receive welfare benefits. Conservatives argue such a vote in a swing state is a clear mandate to revive Bill Clinton-era welfare reforms that require people to be working, looking for a job, or to provide proof that they qualify for an exemption.

This led to a debate over who exactly are these able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDS, as some researchers call them. In the 1990s, the racist “welfare queen” myth propelled so-called “welfare-to-work” reforms that damaged the social safety net and doubled the number of people living in extreme poverty. Today, conservatives have conjured up a different image. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the flamboyant Republican from Florida, recently used the term “couch potatoes.”

At the House Rules Committee, lawmakers discussed a TV ad that aired across Wisconsin in support of the welfare-to-work ballot question, which apparently featured a young man playing video games and demanding his mother to bring him snacks.

“I saw this young white boy who was playing video games saying, ‘Mom, bring me more chips. Why should I work when I get free stuff?’” said Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Milwaukee and longtime defender of Black families enrolled in safety net programs. “No, that person doesn’t exist anymore than the welfare queen does.”

In 2021, 61 percent of working-age Medicaid enrollees who did not qualify based on a disability were working full or part-time, and many others would likely qualify for exemptions from work requirements for attending school or caring for a family member, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Work requirements would only be directed toward only about 7 percent of enrollees, but lower-income people who qualify for Medicaid already disproportionately face barriers to consistent employment and a decent wage.

Many eligible people could lose their coverage simply for failing to navigate the reporting process, which could require internet and computer access. That’s what happened in Arkansas before a federal court blocked work requirements that temporarily were added to its Medicaid program in 2019, when vulnerable people lost their health coverage in the confusion brought by new reporting requirements.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) review of a similar proposal estimated that Medicaid work requirements would cause 2.2 million adults to lose health coverage each year and potentially face catastrophic medical expenses. This would save about $15 billion in federal spending annually but only result in a “very small increase in employment,” according to Kaiser. The CBO score for the legislation passed on Wednesday is still in the works.

Had Republicans held traditional committee hearings and markups instead of rushing the debt ceiling package to the House floor, lawmakers would have had time to consider the people targeted by spending cuts and work requirements instead of relying on cheap stereotypes, according to McGovern.

“Has anybody had any hearings on who this able-bodied adult population is?” McGovern said, adding that this “complicated” population includes veterans, people leaving the foster system, and people with undiagnosed mental illness. “Because the majority of people who are on SNAP actually work. Do you know who this population is?”

For McCarthy and House Republicans, the details of debt limit bill may have mattered less than simply getting it past the finish line, even if only to receive a veto threat from President Joe Biden. Democrats relished a chance to paint Republicans as the party that would punish struggling Americans in order to avoid taxing the rich.

However, Democrats also reach for work requirements when convenient. When Biden and the Democrats were pushing their Build Back Better plan back in 2021, work requirements were included in signature legislation that would ensure no family pays more than 7 percent of their income on child care. The work requirements were reportedly added to sweeten the deal for moderates but would add layer of red tape that critics say is unnecessary and burdensome, especially for the lowest-income families. A draft version of the same legislation that top Democrats plan to reintroduce was recently obtained by The American Prospect, and work requirements remain in the child care bill, although it could be updated and is unlikely to pass.

Indeed, in a nation where Congress refuses to raise the minimum wage and even the employed must rely on programs such as Medicaid and SNAP, work requirements may be more effective at motivating austerity-minded lawmakers than the cohort of “able-bodied adults” they claim to be so concerned about.

Hahn had a simple question for members of Congress debating the future of SNAP and Medicaid: “Do you want to make sure nobody has a free lunch, or do you want to make sure nobody goes hungry?”

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