Bloomberg Law
May 24, 2023, 9:30 AM

What Work Rules Republicans Want as Part of Debt Ceiling Deal

Maeve Sheehey
Maeve Sheehey

Republicans see the debt limit debate as a way to get stricter work rules for government food aid programs — a longtime conservative aim.

Work requirements mandate recipients of the aid programs prove they are working or searching for work as a condition of receiving the assistance. Tightening such rules for social safety nets such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is still very much on the negotiating table, a Republican lawmaker said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Any concession on the issue from the White House would put it at odds with progressives in the Democratic Party who say cutting more Americans off food aid would be unacceptable.

Republican negotiators see work requirements as “fundamental” to any deal to raise the debt limit, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) told reporters on Tuesday. And while President Joe Biden has said Medicaid work requirements are off the table, his stance on food aid has been less clear, leaving some to believe that he’s open to new work rules there.

Here’s a rundown of what Republicans are proposing, who would be affected, and where lawmakers stand:

A sign from a job fair at Navy Pier in Chicago, Ill., in April 2023.
Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

What food programs are Republicans targeting for tighter work requirements?

The programs are SNAP, the largest nutrition safety net in the US that serves more than 42 million people, and TANF, which is a fraction of the size. Work requirements for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, come up more frequently as a GOP demand in nutrition debates.

Read More: McCarthy’s ‘Red Line’ Raises Food Aid Questions: Farm Briefing

What about new rules for other safety-net programs?

Republicans included work requirements for Medicaid, which offers health care for low-income people, in their initial debt limit offer, which Biden said he isn’t open to. While the president has said he opposes offers that would worsen food insecurity, he hasn’t ruled out SNAP and TANF cuts as explicitly as those for health care programs.

“I’m not going to agree to a deal that protects wealthy tax cheats and crypto traders while putting food assistance at risk for nearly 1 million Americans,” Biden said May 21, but Republican lawmakers say the issue is still at play.

What do Republicans want to change?

“Newsflash, SNAP has work requirements,” Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said at a recent hearing.

In addition to SNAP rules requiring recipients to register for work, able-bodied adults between 18 and 49 are subject to a three-month time limit to get SNAP. This means such recipients can only access benefits while working less than 20 hours a week for three months in one year.

Republicans want to raise that age cutoff, making adults aged 50-55 subject to the time limit for SNAP. Nutrition groups and Democrats oppose the change, saying it would kick vulnerable adults off the rolls. The sharp disagreement suggests any debt deal with stricter work rules could face a tough battle to get through the Senate.

Read More: Fetterman Vows to Shield Food Aid From GOP Cuts on Debt Measure

TANF, which grants money to states for payments to low-income Americans, also has requirements that recipients work 30 hours a week, or 20 hours if their child is below 6 years old. The House bill (H.R. 2811) would give states less wiggle room to exempt some recipients from the requirements.

What are the arguments for and against?

The Congressional Black Caucus “has no intention of allowing families to go hungry to appease Republicans,” its members said in a statement last week.

House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson (Pa.) and other Republicans contend the age change would help adults in their 50s by giving them access to SNAP education and training programs. “If you have an able-bodied person with no dependents, you’re gonna pay them to stay home, or put in work requirements to help them find that job — their life becomes better,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who opposes stricter work requirements for SNAP, said the proposals address a problem that doesn’t exist.

“Maybe if he spoke to an able-bodied adult on food assistance, he’d know they aren’t sitting on the couch, because they’re out working,” McGovern said of McCarthy. “They just make so little they qualify for a measly six-dollar-a-day benefit they use to buy food.”

How much money would new requirements save?

Able-bodied adults aged 50-55 without dependents who would be subject to new rules make up a small share of recipients — 7% in 2019, the Congressional Budget Office estimated. Cinching SNAP rules would cut federal spending by $11 billion over the next decade, the CBO estimated, while the TANF proposals would reduce it by a meager $6 million. These are both well below the $109 billion reduction that would come with proposed Medicaid work requirements.

Nutrition groups warn that additional paperwork, however, could discourage eligible recipients from applying to the program. This would also lead to more savings than the CBO’s original estimate.

Read More: Work Rules in Debt Bill Risk Patchwork Impact on Most Vulnerable

What does this mean for the farm bill?

Work requirements for nutrition aid, especially SNAP, have long been a politically charged debate. Talks like these have historically held up the multibillion-dollar farm bill, a five-year package of legislation governing food and farm policy that must be reauthorized or extended by October.

Read More: Regional, Partisan Fights Emerge as Congress Weighs Farm Bill

Some lawmakers believe ironing out the work rules during debt limit talks could be beneficial to the farm bill’s timely passage, but others fret the debt limit has delayed all other policymaking in Congress.

Diego Areas Munhoz in Washington, D.C. also contributed to this story.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Sheehey in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at; Robin Meszoly at

Learn more about Bloomberg Law or Log In to keep reading:

Learn About Bloomberg Law

AI-powered legal analytics, workflow tools and premium legal & business news.

Already a subscriber?

Log in to keep reading or access research tools.