Saturday, June 15, 2013

Lobby Day and the Aftermath of Lobby Day 2013

Constituent Coffee with Sen. Tom Udall
Rep. Lujan Grisham takes SNAP Challenge
There were four of us from New Mexico on Capitol Hill on Lobby Day, June 11: Ellen Buelow, Larry Buelow and Carlos Navarro from Albuquerque and Rev. Art Meyer from Farmington. But we weren't the only ones there.  The social justice committee at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Albuquerque was making calls to the offices of our New Mexico legislators on the same issues that we brought to Congress.

I won't go too much into detail about our appointments with aides (and will post the pictures at the bottom) because there was nothing extraordinary about these meetings. The aides were all gracious and attentive and reinforced the commitment of their bosses--Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, Sen. Tom Udall and Sen. Martin Heinrich--to support safety-net programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

We did have a piece of timely (and unfortunate) information to discuss with the legislative aides: The annual Map the Meal Gap 2013 study released on June 10 by Feeding America, indicated that New Mexico is ranked as the most food insecure state among children in the United States.  Roadrunner Food Bank has more information.

We also asked our legislators to support provisions in the Farm Bill to protect and improve food aid in ways that make the program more efficient. A third ask was to replace the sequestration with a balance plan that includes revenues and responsible cuts  (i.e. closing tax loopholes).

While our visits to Rayburn and Cannon (House)and Hart (Senate) were cordial, I would like to highlight some related developments that occurred and are occurring outside of Lobby Day and a few other impressions from Lobby Day.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the SNAP Challenge
Courtney Weaver met with us
We missed a personal visit with Rep. Lujan Grisham.  Her plane was late coming in from Albuquerque, so she was unable to get there in time for our 3:40 p.m. appointment.  We were slightly disappointed because she was the only legislator with whom we were scheduled to meet directly. But we did have a great meeting with legislative director Courtney Weaver, who informed us that Rep. Lujan Grisham was joining 26 other members of the House in the SNAP challenge.

Here is what the congresswoman said on Facebook: "For the next week, I will be living on the average SNAP, or food stamps, benefit for an individual - just $4.50 a day. The proposed $20.5 billion SNAP cuts in the House Farm Bill would be disastrous to the 1 in 5 New Mexicans who rely on food stamps for basic nutrition and economic security. Today, I went to the grocery store to buy all the food that I'll be able to eat in the next week. Stay tuned for updates on my SNAP Challenge." 

In her brief time in Congress, Rep. Lujan Grisham has made a mark.  As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, she voted against a Farm Bill that cuts $20.5 billion in SNAP benefits. Unfortunately, she was in the minority, and the committee approved the bill with the drastic cuts.  The full House was expected to vote on the measure on the week of June 17-21.

Constituent Coffee with Sen. Tom Udall
Sen. Udall's office on Lobby Day
On most Wednesday mornings, New Mexico's (now) senior senator offers an opportunity for constituents to mingle with him and with each other. Visitors were offered coffee, biscochitos and green-chile pistachos.  I was among about two dozen people (including several high school students) visiting the office that morning.  This was an opportunity to see one of my federal legislators personally.

While we were shaking hands during a pose for a picture, I took the opportunity to thank Sen.Udall personally for standing among the two dozen or so senators to support  the Gillibrand Amendment, an initiative introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to restore $4 billion in SNAP benefits that the Senate Agriculture Committee had cut in its version of the Farm Bill.  The full Senate approved the Farm Bill that included the $4 billion cuts in SNAP (primarily by limiting the ability of states to coordinate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) and SNAP benefits.  Read More from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

The amendment from Sen. Gillibrand would have kept the LIHEAP/SNAP relationship, replacing the cuts with limits on crop reinsurance reimbursements to providers.  The amendment failed by a vote of 70 to 26.

During remarks to the visitors, Sen. Udall took time to acknowledge all the groups that were represented there.  It was good to hear him mention Bread for the World.

Sen.  Martin Heinrich's E-Letter
Posing with Sen. Heinrich's staff
There were 26 senators who voted for the Gillibrand Amendment, and Sen. Heinrich was not on that list.  "Why?"we asked. His staff reassured us that the senator was very concerned about protecting safety net programs, and that the Senate wanted to be in the strongest position possible when having to fend off future efforts to gut safety-net programs, including an amendment by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma to block-grant nutrition programs.  Here is a link to other amendments that were introduced during Senate debate on the Farm Bill.

Our senators had different approaches on this issue (and we did not necessarily agree with this particular decision on the part of Sen. Heinrich).  But we fully understood his stance and appreciated his commitment to do everything he could to keep the integrity of SNAP and protect against broader efforts to gut safety-net programs.

At Rep. Ben Ray Lujan's office
An e-mail response from Sen. Heinrich to letters written as part of Bread for the World's Offering of Letters reinforced his commitment to protect SNAP.

In New Mexico, over 153,000 children lived in a household that experienced food insecurity in the last year. We must do more to ensure every child has the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life. Food assistance programs enable low-income households to purchase enough healthy foods to meet their family's needs.

 Despite the overwhelming need for these programs in our current economic state, some members of Congress have made repeated attempts to cut these critical anti-hunger programs. I understand the importance that food assistance programs have for New Mexico families, please rest assured that I will continue working for programs that fight hunger.

A Drop-In Visit to Rep. Steve Pearce's Office
Since none of us was a constituent of Rep. Pearce, we did not have an appointment with his office.  So we decided to drop by to leave the same packet that we brought on all other visits.  Larry Buelow, one of the members of our delegation, said he knew someone who had worked for Rep. Pearce's office a long time ago and then left.  He wanted to know if the staff knew of his whereabouts.  When we asked about him, the receptionist said we just missed him by a few minutes! So this staffer was back (providing us for an opportunity to follow up on the packet, which we left for the aide who deals with nutrition programs for Rep. Pearce).

Local Visits
The reception and worship at the end of our long day on Capitol Hill do not mark the end of Lobby Day. We have to contact the congressional aides to thank them for meeting with us and to follow up on commitments and questions they posed during our meetings.  In New Mexico, we hope to follow up with visits to the local offices.  Stay tuned for more information. 

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