Freedom Caucus member promotes Meals on Wheels in the face of potential cuts

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, introduced a bill with Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, that would change mileage deductions for Meals on Wheels drivers.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, introduced a bill with Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, that would change mileage deductions for Meals on Wheels drivers. AP

A federal fund that supports dozens of community projects, including Meals on Wheels, is under fire from President Donald Trump.

But a Freedom Caucus member from Texas is leading an effort in Congress to give a tax deduction to volunteer Meals on Wheels drivers, who deliver nearly a million meals a day across the country to senior citizens.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, is the lead sponsor of the DELIVER Act, a bill that would allow Meals on Wheels drivers to claim a tax deduction for the miles they drive while volunteering at the higher business rate than at the charitable rate currently allowed. The business rate is 53.5 cents per mile for 2017; the charitable rate is 14 cents per mile.

“If you’re going to have a budget cycle where you’re going to reduce the amount of funding to Meals on Wheels it makes sense to help,” Barton said. “It’s not a huge amount of money, but for somebody who drives 20 miles a week that’s a little over $10.”

Barton’s co-sponsor for the legislation is Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a former civil rights leader who said Trump was not a “legitimate president” and chose not to attend his inauguration. Lewis has a history with Meals on Wheels; he introduced a bill similar to Barton’s 10 years ago.

“This shows that bipartisanship is still possible,” Barton said. “John Lewis is an icon in the Democratic Party.”

Barton and Lewis co-sponored an identical bill last year, although that was before Trump was elected and Meals on Wheels was in the news as a program that could be threatened by federal cuts.

The bipartisan bill has a companion in the Senate sponsored by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Maine independent Sen. Angus King.

Barton said in an interview he supports any effort by the Trump administration to reduce the deficit, including potential cuts to community programs like Meals on Wheels. Potential federal budget cuts makes his bill more important, he argues, because volunteer drivers will need more of an incentive to participate.

In Tarrant County, more than 5,000 residents receive free meals delivered to their door every day, and they are worried about the program’s future under Trump’s administration.

Trump, who is eager to tighten the nation’s fiscal belt, announced his intention to cut certain unspecified community programs in his budget proposal, dubbed “America First.”

“These programs have such a history of bipartisan support,” said Erika Kelly, chief government affairs officer for Meals on Wheels America. “Any cuts would be devastating and harmful to Meals on Wheels.”

Kelly said the program delivers 23 million fewer meals than it did in 2005 despite increased demand from senior citizens as funding sources dry up.

A decrease in federal funding would be a major blow to the volunteer-run program.

In response to the potential budget cuts, Kelly sent the Trump administration a letter arguing that Meals on Wheels saves taxpayer dollars and lives by making it easier for senior citizens to stay healthy in their own homes and decreasing expensive hospital visits.

Tax code overhaul

The DELIVER Act could find its way into a planned tax code overhaul as an amendment or pass as a standalone bill, Kelly said.

Barton is pushing to get the bill a hearing and wants to pass it as a standalone law, but is open to including it in a bigger bill. He says the increased media attention over potential Meals on Wheels cuts could be the catalyst to get the bill passed.

“Timing is important and this maybe a year this is at the right place at the right time,” Barton said. “You can have a great bill that doesn’t go anywhere because it’s not a visible issue, in this case the proposed budget cuts would help my bill.”

Barton will host a town hall in Tarrant County on Thursday. The event is set for 12 p.m. at the Mansfield City Hall.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

Joe Barton Mansfield Town Hall Meeting

April 13, 2017

12:00 p.m.

Mansfield City Hall, Council Chambers

1200 East Broad Street

Mansfield, TX 76063