June 13, 2011 – 11:03 p.m.

WIC Program Counseling: All Talk or Essential Action?

Report language accompanying a spending bill headed to the House floor this week has triggered a partisan battle over whether the counseling component of a well-established social program constitutes non-essential spending.

Republican appropriators looking for ways to trim department and agency budgets have told government officials running the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to reduce administrative costs, which the GOP lawmakers say soaked up more than 40 percent of the program’s budget last year.

But Democrats accuse the GOP of mislabeling important services as bureaucracy.

WIC aids pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under 5 years old living in or near poverty. The dispute over administrative costs stems from disagreement over how to count the cost of counseling services. Outside of grants for food, WIC spent about $2.2 billion on administrative costs and counseling, a figure that Republicans contend is too much overhead.

GOP appropriators have included language in the committee report accompanying their fiscal 2012 Agriculture spending bill ( HR 2112 ) requiring the Agriculture Department to submit a plan this summer to reduce WIC administrative costs. The bill, which would cut overall WIC spending by about 11 percent from this year’s level, is expected on the House floor this week.

Democrats say Republicans have mischaracterized WIC expenses. They say Republicans are lumping in vital services, including diet counseling, health assessments and drug treatment referrals, with administrative overhead.

Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston , R-Ga., acknowledged a difference of opinion about the administrative-costs figure but rebuffed Democrats’ request for changes in the report language. “We want the money to go to feeding children, and not to the education element of the bureaucracy,” Kingston said.

Democrats argue that curbing WIC’s counseling services would be shortsighted, since the program is intended to do more than simply provide food staples such as milk and peanut butter. “It would be foolish of us as a country to go down this path,” said Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, a senior Democratic appropriator.

Actual administrative costs are 9 percent of total program costs, or about $600 million, according to Democrats.

“It’s nowhere close to 40 percent,” Norm Dicks of Washington, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said during a May 31 markup of the Agriculture spending bill. “These are services to clients, and not administrative expenses.”

Democrats eventually hope to strike the provision from the final report language sent to the Agriculture Department.