GOP senator slams USDA for not answering questions on policies contributing to record food stamp use

Caroline May | Reporter

Following news that participation in the food stamp program hit another record high in September, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions took to the Senate floor Tuesday to lambast the Department of Agriculture for failing to respond to an oversight request regarding USDA policies that have likely contributed to the expansion of the program.

“America is a generous and compassionate nation. We do not want to have people hungry in our country,” Sessions, the Ranking Member on the Senate Budget Committee said. “We want to be able to be supportive to people in need, but every program must meet basic standards of efficiency and productivity and wisdom in management, and this program is resisting that.”

Friday, the USDA released its most recent data on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp, participation — revealing that enrollment once again hit a record high in September with 47.7 million people enrolled (more than 600,000 more people than the previous month of August.)

Sessions, a hawk on confronting food stamp excesses, noted that every recent year and every month, participation in the program has continued to rise and spending has quadrupled in just over a decade to $80 billion in 2011.

SNAP, he said, is the fastest growing major program in the U.S. government today.

The Alabama senator has been pushing USDA for answers on their various means of food stamp promotion — notably to people who either do not want or who should not be on food stamps. While he said he has received some answers that were “very troubling,” his most recent request in October (with a mid-October deadline) for more answers and for USDA to eliminate some of their promotion materials has remained unanswered for nearly two months.

“Now we’re not getting anymore answers. They are just shut-door,” Sessions said. “[Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack] basically said, ‘well you member of the Senate, you are asking too many questions, I’m not giving you anymore information you raise concerns when I give you information. You point out problems, I don’t like that, you’re not getting anymore.'”

Sessions noted that previous inquiries have revealed the agency to be engaged in a concerted effort to increase the number to people on food stamps — including efforts to persuade against “mountain pride,” overcome the word “no,” a partnership with the Mexican government to enroll more new immigrants in SNAP and claiming that more people on food stamps is an economic benefit to communities.

He slammed the USDA for failing to provide his office with updates about his most recent request for information and claimed that the agency is not even working on an answer.

“Last I heard [Vilsack] worked for the American people. So do I. And one of my jobs is to make sure the American people’s money is well spent and I am asking him how he is spending our money! And he does not want to respond,” Sessions continued.

The senator’s October letter further requested more information about the department’s partnership with the Mexican government to promote nutrition assistance among new immigrants, its interpretation of the federal distinction “public charge” as it applies to SNAP and other USDA-administered programs, and how many people USDA want to enroll in the program if they meet their participation goals.

“What I sense is that when you ask questions about it, you are treated like someone who doesn’t care about people who are hungry — who do need our help and we want to help — when all we are asking is, can’t we do it better?” He said, going on to promise he will use all the tools at his disposal in the Senate to wring answers out of the department.

In his last letter to Sessions in early fall, Vilsack assured the senator that the department is not simply trying to grow the food stamp rolls but rather ensure that people who are eligible are educated about the program.

“We do not pressure any eligible person to accept benefits, nor is our goal to simply increase the number of program participants, but we are determined to help people in need make informed decisions about whether or not to seek assistance for which they may be eligible,” the agriculture secretary wrote.

The Daily Caller has reached out to USDA for further comment.

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