Congress Taking Food from Poor Women and Children to Save a Few Bucks?

Ask Kyle – Putting the “Bud” back in Federal Budget

Well...maybe. The actual answer is complicated. Although that might be an a reasonable conclusion to draw if you recently read that Congress was planning to slash more than $832 million from the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program. WIC helps low-income women and children receive such things as nutrition education, health care, and food....y'know, luxury items. According the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities, this loss could block assistance for up to 350,000 low-income women and children. Now keep in mind that $832 million represents just .02% of ALL government spending in 2011. So as Phil A. in Rhonert Park, CA asked me: “is cutting WIC's budget really the most effective way to reduce our nation's deficit?”

The House Appropriations Committee

Well Phil, before we get into that let's back up a little bit first. 

Who exactly is deciding how much money should go towards helping those in need? 

Funny you should ask that Phil, because I was just about to say the first person in line is the President. The White House submits a budget proposal for the entire U.S. government to Congress each year in February. Once in Congress, the President's budget proposal is looked at by the Appropriations Committee, which makes budgetary decisions based on the President's request. For WIC, the people making the first round of changes to the President's proposal are the  members of the Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food & Drug Administration Subcommittee. This particular subcommittee is  one of a total of 12  Appropriations subcommittees. Think of the Appropriations Committee as the Hall of Justice and the Agricultural Subcommittee as Wonder Woman or Batman.

Each of these 12 subcommittees has jurisdiction over one or more of the President's “Executive Branch” federal agencies.. For instance, the Homeland Security Subcommittee oversees the budget for the Department of Homeland Security. Since WIC is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Subcommittee gets to develop its budget.

Once the Agricultural Subcommittee makes its recommendation, the bill is then kicked up to the full Appropriations Committee for further changes, or amendments. Once the Appropriations Committee approves the budget, it can be voted upon by the rest of Congress. And in the off-chance that Congress can reach an agreement  (it almost didn't this past year – much like when you stubbornly continue to argue a point well after you've realized you're wrong) it goes back to President for final approval.

Pretty simple right? Absolutely not. Remember, there are TWO chambers of Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each chamber has its own Appropriations Committee, each with its own 12 subcommittees. Two Halls of Justice, Two Batmans (and if I've learned anything over the years, one of those Batmans probably has a goatee). Both Appropriations Committees must come up with a budget proposal. Both the Senate and the House have to agree on those budget proposals (or risk a government shutdown, as we almost had this spring).. The House and Senate budgets must then be reconciled so that they are identical, and re-approved before going to the President. And even then the President could just veto Congress's budget and start the whole process over again.

Confused?? Perhaps this graphical representation will help:

The Congressional Appropriations Process

For a more detailed description of the appropriations process, check out this great resource from us here at National Priorities Project. 

So Phil, I told you that story to tell you this one:

Last week the Appropriations Committee in the House approved its Agricultural Subcommittee's budget proposal. After trenching through the sometimes Orwellian language of the Committee's  Budget Report (a double-plus ungood endeavor) I found that they had intended to cut $832,777,000 from WIC's Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget (FY 2012 runs from October 1, 2011 to September 30, 2012). The amount allocated to WIC for FY 2012 is $5.9 Billion – 14% lower than it's FY 2011 budget and a whopping 25% lower than the Administration's FY 2012 budget request. This is sort of like when your job gives you a yearly raise to account for inflation and cost-of-living increases...except the exact opposite. The entire $5.9 billion FY 2012 budget for WIC (keep in mind this is the program helps feed low-income women and children) represents just.0.16%  (that's 16 cents out of a $1000) of ALL government spending in FY 2011.

So long story short WIC is getting cut by $832 million?

Easy there, Phil.  Actually this is where things start getting a little Robin Williams kind of hairy.

“Fiscal policy? WAHEEAHHHH!!!”

The House Agricultural Subcommittee proposed this $832 million cut. But during deliberations in the full Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) won back $147 million for WIC. You see, some months back the Obama Administration struck a deal wherein the government  would pay Brazil $147 million as an act of contrition for subsidizing U.S. cotton farmers. This money was intended to keep Brazil from retaliating against the United States through import tariffs on U.S. goods. Rep. DeLauro's amendment to the WIC budget essentially said “No Dice” with an Alan Rickman-like somberness and diverted that $147 million to WIC. So with DeLauro's amendment the proposed funding for WIC is now only being cut by $685 million.

Still, that $685 million has to come from somewhere!

Well Phil, if we look at this optimistically maybe it won't affect actual WIC participants.

Last Known Photo of “Ask Kyle”

Citing figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the subcommittee reports that 40 cents of every WIC dollar is spent on administrative costs. Assuming these figures are correct (and there is some debate on this), that's 40 cents of every dollar not directly helping those who need it. Remember during the healthcare debate of 2009 when the high administrative costs of private insurers was a hot-button issue? Well maybe the same logic could apply here: spend less on bureaucracy and spend more on giving people what they need. And the subcommittee did state in its report that it “would take additional action as necessary to ensure that funding provided in FY12 is sufficient to serve all [WIC] applicants.” This means, in theory, that Congress could pass a supplemental spending bill down the road if WIC funding runs out.

However – and this is a BIG however – WIC supporters argue that reductions made in the name of trimming excessive overhead actually result in a real reduction of services.

Meanwhile, the subcommittee's report expresses concern over the fact that some WIC recipients have a yearly income 185% above the U.S. Poverty Guidelines.  Right now a family of four making less than $22,350 a year is considered to be in poverty. 185% of that is $41,347. For the year. Phil, this might just shoot a hole in my optimistic outlook...sort of like a strategically placed vent shaft on a space station.

Hmmm....that vent shaft couldn't have been bigger than a Womp Rat.

But remember Phil, this is ALL subject to change! The $685 million in WIC cuts is just what's being proposed by the House Appropriations Committee. The bill has yet to reach the floor of the House (although that might happen next week) and the Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to even take up the matter. So at this point who knows? Rep. DeLauro's $147 million amendment may or may not survive. More drastic cuts could be made on the House floor. The Democratically-controlled Senate may not even seek any cuts at all. Things are still uncertain. But the message here is very clear: in a time of major concerns about the federal deficit, social programs across the board are a target for spending cuts. The proposed cuts to WIC are just one sign of what's to come in months ahead.

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