Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT), who’s expected to face Sen. John Tester (D) in the Montana Senate race next year, is worried that some families who receive federally-subsidized lunches may be gaming the system and therefore bilking you out of your hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
It’s about waste, fraud and abuse, he suggests. But Democrats say it’s about something else: A Republican looking to scrimp on a program that benefits the least fortunate of all Americans, poor children, while he fights to protect subsidies for multi-billion dollar oil companies.
Rehberg is fond of looking to the nation’s education subsidies to find extraneous money that can be cut. Back in April, he landed in some hot water after he said that Pell Grants were the same as welfare, a comment he quickly walked back after public outcry back home in Big Sky Country.
But even in the walking back, there was evidence of Rehberg’s concern that taxpayer money earmarked for making it easier for people without a lot of income to get an education is place where cuts need to be made. Pell Grants are “are an attempt to do the right thing,” he said, and “the difficulty is, often times a program is so successful that it grows and grows and grows and grows.”
“I’m not suggesting that college students are welfare recipients,” he said, according to the Huffington Post. “‘I’m just saying that the program itself is expanding so quickly it’s moving beyond the federal government’s ability’ to pay for it.”
This time around, Rehberg set his sights a little lower down the educational ladder. On a tour of a Montana elementary school (where his sister is principal), Rehberg wanted to know quite a bit about how the school policies its government-subsidized lunch program. From the Billings Gazette:
Rehberg asked [his sister and school district official Brenda Koch] pointed questions about fraud and whether families ever dupe the free and reduced-price meal system.
Koch explained that each year, a random sample of families who sign up and qualify are audited by the district to make sure they meet the income guidelines.
On top of that, she said, the district is audited by the state every year on how its Title I dollars are spent.
“I’d like to punish those systems that rip the taxpayers off,” Rehberg said during the visit, according to the Gazette.
A call about the visit to Rehberg’s Senate campaign office was referred to his Congressional staff in Washington. An email asking for more details on the Q&A and Rehberg’s concerns about the school lunch program went unanswered last week.
There are two recent high-profile cases of school officials abusing the program for their own children in Ohio and New Jersey, but the USDA, which administers the school lunch program, said most concerns about fraud come from the program formerly known as food stamps, not school lunches.
The USDA told TPM that on a federal level, the program audits random samples of recipients to make sure the meals are being allocated legally. The department says there are payment problems in the program — and parents wrongfully reporting income to sign up are part of the problem as is underpaying benefits to people who deserve them— but the total cost to the federal government in the 2005-2006 school year (the last year for which the USDA has available data) was around $1 billion.
Not nothing, to be sure, but hardly the kind of savings a budget hawk’s dreams are made of.
In Montana, the concern is not fraud caused by poor families, according to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, but rather poor families not getting the assistance they need. Her office told TPM that “there are many people eligible for free and reduced lunch who don’t apply for the program out of stigma.”
“The Superintendent has absolutely no concern that Montana families are committing fraud,” Montana OPI spokesperson Allyson Hagen said.
Democrats have enjoyed tweaking Rehberg over his wealth (he’s the 23rd richest member of Congress but recently said he’s “struggling like everyone else”) and with the school lunch comments, they say they’ve caught him headed toward war on the poor like he seemed to declare with his Pell comments.
“Millionaire Congressman Dennis Rehberg went to an elementary school and demanded to know about fraud in the school lunch program for low income students,” Tester campaign manager Preston Elliott told TPM. “At the same time he’s voted to increase his own pay 5 times and to protect subsidies for oil companies. Well, Dennis, the fraud is you telling Montana families that you’re on their side.”