DC Council threatens to sue Mayor Bowser over SNAP benefits

After news broke that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser suggested she would refuse to boost food assistance benefits for District residents, it looks like the D.C. Council is ready to play hardball — including taking her to court.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s Tuesday resolution “authorizes our General Counsel to initiate or otherwise participate in a lawsuit on behalf of the Council to assert the requirement to disburse the funds as appropriated by the Council.”

At stake is $40 million in funding. For over 145,000 SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients in D.C., the “Give SNAP a Raise” bill passed by the D.C. Council in March was meant to increase benefits by 10% between January and September.

Mendelson told WTOP it was important to introduce the resolution because “we were very specific that if the revenues were adequate, that we would enhance the SNAP benefits.”

Mendelson added, “There’s no discretion on the part of the executive. So this is a separation of powers issue. And it’s important that we protect our appropriation authority. There are real people who will benefit from these enhanced SNAP benefits. And that was the council’s intent. And that’s what the law is.”

Mendelson noted that, during the COVID pandemic, people across the country received an increase in benefits, but it was discontinued.

“Food is important. And there are a lot of folks who struggle to get the food, let alone nutritious food. That’s what these benefits are about,” he said.

Even with the threat of a lawsuit, Mendelson said he’s still hopeful “we will work things out with the mayor.”

He said he has a meeting with Bowser lined up. “So I’m hopeful that this gets resolved. But if not, then the council has to … take a vote in order for us to have the legal ability to protect the budget.”

Robert White, at-large member of the D.C. Council, agreed with Mendelson’s move.

“It’s unfortunate that the council has to sue the mayor in order to get her to follow the law and increase benefits for SNAP, which is a program that just helps people put food on the table,” White told WTOP.

“This is a disturbing pattern. It comes right on the heels of the mayor trying to take money out of emergency rental assistance for people who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads — we were able to stop that through legislation.”

In a statement to WTOP, the mayor’s office said Bowser has “funded and implemented a multitude of programs designed to put cash in people’s pockets while also putting them on the road to a good paying job and affordable housing.”

However, White said the council has “not seen a comprehensive plan from the mayor to help people who are vulnerable and, in fact, what we’ve seen is her continuing to defund, systematically, these programs.”

As for whether or not Bowser has the right to deploy financial resources other than the council’s intention: “That’s not a choice that the executive gets to make,” Mendelson said.

His resolution would be added to the council’s Jan. 9 agenda.

Bowser’s administration has cited budgetary and staffing constraints in its pushback.

“With significant fiscal and human resources pressures in our human services cluster, it’s not prudent to increase spending on one program, especially when demand for other programs that support the same people is increasing beyond our current budget,” Bowser’s office said in its statement.

The mayor’s office said Bowser has spoken to council members about alternative, permanent ways to provide food support to those living in the District.

“We hope to continue these conversations, and our goal is for the Council and the Executive to work together on more sustainable food investments. As our budgets tighten, we have a responsibility to first fund and sustain critical housing, shelter, and the cash and food assistance benefits already in place,” the statement read.

WTOP’s Dick Uliano and Grace Newton contributed to this report.

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Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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