With the U.S. election over, attention turns to issues Congress left unfinished when the election recess began, including the farm bill. While dragging the adoption of a farm bill well beyond its expiration, even into a new year, is not a problem in and of itself, this year a delay beyond the “lame duck” session of Congress could significantly reduce the amount of money available for the farm program due to the sequestration cuts that are scheduled to take place next year.

While there is some agreement on the broad outlines of the federal crop insurance program, Republicans in the House want to make cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously called food stamps) benefits, while some Democrats refuse to vote for legislation that makes those cuts. The Senate did not include cuts in SNAP in its passage of a farm bill. Without an agreement on SNAP, the passage of the farm bill could be delayed into next year.

Advocates for cutting SNAP complain that the use of this program has grown in part because the Obama administration expanded the use of “categorical eligibility,” leading to increased federal expenditures. In addition to being eligible for SNAP benefits by meeting federal income requirements, households are considered to have “categorical eligibility” if they “already met financial eligibility rules in one specified low-income program,” eliminating the requirement that they go through another financial eligibility determination to receive SNAP benefits.

The Congressional Research Service was asked to provide a report on the program to members and committees of Congress on the issue. The result was “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Categorical Eligibility” (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42054.pdf), a report written by Gene Falk and Randy Alison Aussenberg and released in July.

In their report, the authors trace the concept of categorical eligibility for cash assistance recipients back to the early 1970s. They then write: “These rules were eliminated in the rewrite of food stamp law enacted in 1977, but they were reinstated in phases during the early 1980s through 1990. Categorical eligibility was seen as advancing the goals of simplifying administration, easing entry to the program for eligible households, emphasizing coordination among low-income assistance programs, and reducing the potential for errors in establishing eligibility for benefits.

“The Food Security Act of 1985 conveyed categorical eligibility to all households receiving cash aid from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), SSI, and state-run GA [General Assistance] programs. These programs had their own income and resource tests (often more stringent than food stamp tests), so subjecting a household to a separate set of income and resource tests for food stamps was seen as redundant and inefficient.”