Obama Puts Democrats Back in Welfare Reform Trap

Political controversy over welfare is back after a 16-year hiatus.

As with the fight that started earlier this year over whether Catholic organizations should be forced to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, a rule change from the Department of Health and Human Services started the dispute.

And once again, the Obama administration is on shaky ground as a matter of both law and politics.

In 1996, a Republican Congress enacted, and President Bill Clinton signed, a welfare-reform law that imposed a “work requirement” on all states. Every state must make 40 percent of welfare recipients either work, look for work, get on-the-job training, go to high school, get vocational education or participate in job-readiness training. These activities must take up at least 30 hours a week.

The bipartisan reform is generally considered a success. Welfare caseloads dropped, employment rates for single mothers increased and child poverty declined. Robert Rector, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who played a big role in writing and enacting the law, notes that while the numbers have gone up and down with the economy, all of them have stayed better than they were before the reform.

Subverting Reforms

The law has nonetheless always had detractors in the left wing of the Democratic Party, who considered it draconian. A few critics of the law resigned over Clinton’s signing of it. Republicans suspect that the critics are now subverting it.

On July 12, HHS claimed that Kathleen Sebelius, the department’s head, can let states out of the work requirement. It says she will use that authority not to undermine the goal of moving people from welfare to work, but to give states flexibility in meeting it. She will issue waivers only if those states present a solid plan to improve their performance.

Ron Haskins, who also helped draft the law as a staffer for House Republicans in the 1990s and now works at the Brookings Institution, says waivers might be helpful in some circumstances. A state, for example, might have a successful job-training program for welfare recipients without it counting as work under the law. Haskins doesn’t believe that the administration is trying to undo welfare reform, and he thinks the state governments are much more committed to moving people from welfare to work than they were before.

Most Republicans are less trusting of the administration’s intentions. And even Haskins criticizes its methods (it didn’t consult with Republicans) and questions the legal basis for the claim that it can hand out waivers.

Until now, nobody has ever thought that the executive branch has this power. Sebelius has noted that in 2005, a lot of Republican governors -- including one Mitt Romney of Massachusetts -- signed a letter saying they wanted more flexibility in administering welfare dollars. They wanted the HHS to have “increased waiver authority.” That’s true.

But as useful as that history is for an administration seeking political cover, it undermines its legal claim. The Republicans were seeking congressional action to give HHS that extra authority. That’s why the letter was addressed to Bill Frist, who was Senate majority leader at the time. They didn’t get what they wanted.

Executive Discretion

If it’s a good idea for the states to have more control over federal welfare dollars, Congress should give it to them. The executive branch shouldn’t simply grant itself the power to ignore the law at its own discretion, even with the reassurance that it will do so only when wise.

If Congress takes up this issue, it should also extend work requirements to other anti-poverty programs. Right now, food stamps and public housing lack strong work rules. Building on the success of such requirements is a cause that unites Rector, Haskins and even the liberal poverty expert Isabel Sawhill.

Haskins laments the current dispute: “A big part of the problem here is trust and faith, of which there is virtually none in Washington.” By acting unilaterally under a tortured interpretation of the law, the administration has made that problem worse.

It has also created a political vulnerability for the president. Work requirements are popular. Democrats suffered for decades because the electorate thought they were willing to spend money on a welfare system that asked little from beneficiaries in return for tax dollars, and as a consequence kept recipients dependent. In the middle of an election year, Democrats have now given voters a reason to wonder whether they have gone back to their bad old ways.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the author of this column: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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