Soledad O’Brien to Republican Sen. Sessions: Why Pick on People on Food Stamps?

Appearing on Tuesday’s Starting Point, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was savaged by host Soledad O’Brien for daring to suggest the federal food stamp program should be one of the many programs that are trimmed in order to achieve spending cuts to avert the so-called fiscal cliff on January 1.

O'Brien predictably used a talking point that sounds a lot like the left-wing complaint that the GOP wants to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor":

People basically say why are you trying to balance the budget on people who are making under $23,000 a year?  I think that range roughly is the national average for what a family of four would get on food stamps.  So why not cut something else? There are other things that could be on the table before you pick a program that is feeding the nation's poor children.  [See video below page break.  MP3 audio here.] 

O’Brien then sought to paint Sessions as a heartless scrooge who would harm some "61 percent of households" in his home state. Soledad goes so  far as to claim perhaps the problem is not enough people are on food stamps:

It’s something like under 70% who are eligible who sign up, so I think the problem could be in the reverse that, not as many people who could get food stamps are on it.

Sessions patiently rebutted her claim by pointing out that:

No child, no person, who needs food, should be denied that food. Nobody proposes that. But we're talking about an amendment that I offered that would have reduced and closed a loophole of $8 billion, when we would spend $800 billion, was opposed by saying it would help leave people hungry in America, but it would have only eliminated abuses in the program.  It surely has to have some change.

O'Brien then responded, as she usually does, by turning to a liberal think-tank, which she fails to identify as liberal, to back-up her liberal talking points, in this instance the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities which claimed:

SNAP [the federal food stamp program] has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program.  In recent years has received its lowest error rates on record.  I mean people highlight the program as actually not having a lot of fraud.  That most people who are on it are not somehow working the system, they are just hungry people.

Again, Senator Sessions shot back, pointing out the flaws of that study. "What they are doing is they are counting the computer system fraud error rate," Sessions noted, not, "counting the real people who are filing false incomes or haven't reported changes in their income."  

 

See relevant transcript below.


CNN

Starting Point

December 11, 2012

7:33 a.m. EDT

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Let's get to Republican Senator Jeff Sessions from the state of Alabama.  He’s the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee.  It’s nice to have you with us sir.  Thank you for being with us.  

JEFF SESSIONS: Soledad, nice to be with you.

O’BRIEN: Appreciate that.  Do you think that is that a fair read, the quieter it gets means the more that’s getting done and when they are saying nothing and have no events at all, it means that we're close to a deal?

SESSIONS: You know when we are reading tea leaves and that's all we have, you know how bad it is.  Why do we have a United States Senate?  It looks like the President and the Speaker of the House will decide this on Christmas or New Year's Eve and they’ll be plopped down in Congress and we'll be told to vote for it or we’ll have a national crisis. This should have been done in public, we should have been talking about this for months, it should have been openly done and members of Congress all voting on it.  The American people observing what's going on.  I really think, honestly, that this is not a good way to do handle important American business.

O’BRIEN: There are people, who’d say, but you can’t really do a sensitive negotiation, right, when everybody has an opportunity to run to the TV cameras and have their own teams put up press releases, because the conversation gets derailed by the pr agenda, if you will, in that. And that's why you have to have behind closed door meetings, because at least everybody sort of shuts up with the noise around it.

SESSIONS: Well, I don't agree with that. That's what we have Congress for. That's what the whole process is designed to do.  Is to get it out of these secret meetings and into the public venues so the American people and the Congress themselves, we're responsible for making intelligent decisions, those, that should be done publicly. But at some point after public debate and so forth, yes, private negotiations can help bridge the gap, and bring us to a successful conclusion.  But we've gone now for three years with a real serious problem. No budget. No appropriations bills this year. It’s just not a good way to do the people's business. I don't think anybody can dispute this is really not good.

O’BRIEN: The Washington Post is I guess also trying to read the tea leaves talking a little about what potentially as vague as it is, could be on the table in terms of cuts. Back in, I think it was July, you were debating Senator Gillibrand, and you talked about food stamps, she wanted to reinstate some money into food stamp, into the farm bill and you wanted it cut.  Do you think that food stamps and that program should be on the table in terms of where you could try and save money?

SESSIONS: Oh, absolutely.  Every part of the government needs to be available for improvement. What we found was and in the Budget Control Act and the sequester, there was no cuts, not a dime reduced in the food stamp spending, which has gone up four times. One in six Americans are now receiving food stamps. It’s going up, this month was a record increase in food stamp participation, at a time when unemployment is declining, so what we want to do is to look at this program, and to identify how we can move people from dependency to independence to help them achieve the kind of income level that can sustain their family and their independence.

O’BRIEN: But there are people who’d say if you’re doing cuts, you invariably hurt people who need food and who are on food stamps so that they can buy supplemental food.  I mean it’s 61% of households in your state have children who are recipients of the food program that they are on.

SESSIONS: Soledad, this program has been growing out of control at an incredible rate and there are a lot of people receiving benefits that do not qualify and should not receive them. But the focus of our government program should be as always in America to help people in need. No child, no person, who needs food, should be denied that food. Nobody proposes that. But we're talking about an amendment that I offered that would have reduced and closed a loophole of $8 billion, when we would spend $800 billion, was opposed by saying it would help leave people hungry in America, but it would have only eliminated abuses in the program.  It surely has to have some change.

O’BRIEN:  But on those two fronts, let me stop you there for a second.  You say it's growing out of control. You voted in fact right in 2002 and in 2008 to grow the program yourself.  I think first under president bush in 2002, and then when it comes to fraud, this Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program.  In recent years has received its lowest error rates on record.  I mean people highlight the program as actually not having a lot of fraud.  That most people who are on it are not somehow working the system, they are just hungry people.

SESSIONS: That's not accurate.  What they are doing is they are counting the computer system fraud error rate, but they are not out counting the real people who are filing false incomes or haven't reported changes in their income.  But again, we want to be sure that people who are in need get that need. Americans always believe in that.  We’re not trying to deny people in need. But surely one would not contend that a program that has gone up four fold in ten years and had the biggest increase ever just this month, at a time when unemployment dropped, doesn't need some review and to be made better.

O’BRIEN: When they look at the people in your state though, the people in your state, it’s something like 67% of the people in your state, and while for the nation it’s 1 in 6 people on food stamps. In your state it’s 1 in 5.  In your state, one in five.  So, 20% of your constituents are on food stamps and they look at the people who are actually eligible.  It’s something like under 70% who are eligible who sign up, so I think the problem could be in the reverse that, not as many people who could get food stamps are on it.

SESSIONS: Well, you would like to have, well; the Department of Agriculture said if you give more food stamps out, it helps the economy. When we borrow the money to send it out.  That obviously cannot be so.  Look, we want to be sure that people who need it get that aid.

O’BRIEN: I get your point.

SESSIONS: Do you think there is no problem with the program?

O’BRIEN: I'm not an elected official so I have no idea.  I guess my question would be, when are you thinking of things to cut, right?  People basically say why are you trying to balance the budget on people who are making under $23,000 a year?  I think that range roughly is the national average for what a family of four would get on food stamps.  So why not cut something else. There are other things that could be on the table before you pick a program that is feeding the nation's poor children.

SESSIONS: I'm not picking a program. I say all programs need to be examined in this government. This government is wasting money every day.  There’s no doubt about that.  And we have got to do better.  And food stamps is a program that was totally exempted from any oversight and change when it has gone up four times in the last ten years.  And the amount we spend is the fastest growing program of all.

O’BRIEN: Two of those times you voted for it. 2002 and 2008 you voted for it.  So you voted for it and some people are saying it’s growing because people are hurting.  

SESSIONS: I voted for the Ag bill that had that in it, probably so.

Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center.