House members narrowly approved a bill Thursday to cut federal funding for food stamp programs by $39 billion over the next decade, and both Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais cast votes in support.
The bill, which would authorize the program for three years, was approved in a 217-210 vote.
According to a report from Washington, D.C., newspaper The Hill, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that up to 3.8 million people will lose their food stamp benefits next year.
The congressmen defended their votes as being a step to rid the program of waste, fraud and abuse, adding their hope that reforms to the program would return it to its original purpose. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides an average of $133 a month to approximately 47 million Americans, 1.3 million of which are Tennesseans.
Last year, the federal government spent roughly $80 billion on SNAP.
Thursday's vote came after wrangling over the farm bill this summer, which had initially included provisions to cut SNAP benefits but was later approved without language pertaining to food stamps. According to a Washington Post report, it was the first time since 1973 that funding for food stamps was not included as part of a farm bill.
Before voting, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said he was supporting the legislation to enforce work requirements and end loopholes. The congressman added that Americans should be "shocked and outraged" by the growth of the food stamp program in recent years.
"There's one in seven Americans on food stamps now, and we've seen an increase in the program of 164 percent between 2007 and 2011," Fleischmann said in an interview with Nooga.com. "… This program has increased to $80 billion a year, and it's double the cost that it was in 2008. It's just not sustainable."
When asked how he would reconcile supporting legislation that could potentially end benefits for constituents in his district, the congressman said the hope for America would be "in the free enterprise system, not entitlement programs."
According to an Associated Press analysis, 20.4 percent of Tennesseans receive benefits from the food stamp program—enough to comprise the fifth-highest percentage in the nation.
Staffers for DesJarlais said the congressman supported the bill because he thought it would help enable participation in the workforce and close loopholes. Dayne Cutrell, legislative director for DesJarlais, said the congressman did not think the cuts would be too deep or too much.
"If you look at the growth of this program and the relaxing of certain requirements and rules, it's a balloon," Cutrell said. "It's grown so quickly. Saving $40 billion over 10 years would not even cut the rate of growth—when you're cutting to a program that has grown exponentially, [DesJarlais] doesn't think that it's too much."
Robert Jameson, press secretary for DesJarlais, added that the congressman was hopeful the bill would keep provisions for assistance in place for Americans who were truly in need of help.
"[DesJarlais] believes we are a kind nation, a caring nation, and always willing to help those in need," Jameson said. "The problem is with the level of waste, fraud and abuse in this program; it is taking away from those who need it most."
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