Editorial written by The Seattle Times Editorial Board
When the federal government falters, the nation’s most vulnerable residents feel the effects hardest and fastest. That will be the case if Congress doesn’t get its act together before the end of the month and approve funding for low-income families who receive federal food assistance.
After taking a monthlong summer vacation in August, Congress has precious few days left to pass funding bills for a dozen major federal agencies. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. If Congress misses the deadline, much of the federal government will shut down.
Hold on, one might interject. Didn’t we just go through a federal government shutdown crisis? Didn’t Republicans and President Joe Biden strike a deal to keep things running months ago?
Yes, but never underestimate Congress’ most-radical members’ ability to manufacture a new crisis. Last time the fight was over the debt ceiling. This time it’s over spending bills.
The far-right members of the House Republican caucus are demanding steep cuts, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy lacks the fortitude to stand up to them.
A bipartisan deal is on the table. The Senate Appropriations Committee, which Washington Sen. Patty Murray chairs, passed a full set of funding bills with bipartisan support.
“We have provided a clear bipartisan road map to fund the government under extremely difficult constraints, proving Congress can work together and through its differences,” Murray said.
McCarthy and the far-right holdouts aren’t interested in working together.
Complicating matters — and here’s where those low-income families come into it — the Biden White House has asked for supplemental spending on several items that some Republicans don’t want to pay for, including money to bolster the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, called WIC.
During the pandemic, Congress increased and expanded WIC benefits to reach more low-income mothers, pregnant women, and children.
It provides healthy food to families and some money they can spend on fruits and vegetables. It’s a hugely successful program that helps young children get off to a healthy start in life.
In an average month, 126,000 Washingtonians receive about $46 worth of food assistance.
Inflation the past couple of years has pushed food costs up, leaving those families vulnerable to food insecurity. Biden therefore has requested $1.4 billion to bolster WIC.
That money is tied up in the larger funding fight. If Congress doesn’t act, many WIC benefits will run out in early October, and families will struggle to feed children nutritious meals.
Murray and her colleagues have a deal in place. It probably could get bipartisan support in the House after it passes the Senate.
All it would take is for McCarthy to bring it up for a vote. That would infuriate the most conservative Republicans and potentially put his speakership at risk. He must ask himself what’s more important, holding onto power in an untenable situation or feeding mothers and children?