How to gut welfare reform

Bill Clinton thought Mitt Romney’s charge that Barack Obama “wants to weaken the work requirements in the welfare reform bill I signed” was a “real doozy” in his speech last night.  This is what Clinton says “really happened:”

“When some Republican governors asked if they could have waivers to try new ways to put people on welfare back to work, the Obama administration listened because we all know it’s hard for even people with good work histories to get jobs today. So moving folks from welfare to work is a real challenge.

“And the administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent, and they could keep the waivers only if they did increase employment. Now, did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less.”

(Emphasis mine.)  Unfortunately for Clinton, he gave this speech on the very day that the Government Accountability Office confirmed that, yes indeed, Obama is trying to illegally make a major change to the law, and the changes should have been submitted through Congress.  Whoops!

But let’s be charitable and suppose Clinton would be willing to grant that Obama changed the welfare form law in a big way… and maybe even that he would acknowledge the GAO’s judgment and agree that Obama should have submitted the proposed alterations to Congress.  Those are both very salient facts left out of Clinton’s rebuttal to Romney’s criticism, which can hardly be dismissed as a “doozy” if they are granted.

But set them aside for a moment and focus on the “gutting” aspect of Obama’s assault on welfare reform.  Who in their right minds, even considering nothing but Clinton’s own words from Wednesday night, could conclude that “a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent” is a fitting substitute for an absolute work requirement?  Let alone a tougher one?  This is buffoonery, especially since Clinton didn’t bother using tricky language to insinuate that states have to achieve a 20 percent increase in employment to get their waivers.

This substitute “standard” boils down to the discretion of the Health and Human Services Secretary – currently a partisan Democrat who just got caught lying about Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform proposals.  That’s not much of a standard at all.  It’s good old Big Government bloat, replacing a firm legislative standard duly enacted by Congress – and signed by Bill Clinton, who was told in no uncertain terms at the time that his political survival depended on it – with the whims of a bureaucrat.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who had a hand in designing the 1996 welfare reform law, put it like this:

“The Obama Administration will put in mothballs the formal purpose of welfare reform – to reduce the number of people dependent on government benefits. The Administration will abandon the legislative performance goal that encourages states to reduce welfare caseloads. It will weaken the ‘work participation’ standards that require some 30 percent of able-bodied Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients to engage in work activities for 20 to 30 hours per week.

“Even worse,” Rector continued, “the Obama Administration will “waive compliance” with those work participation standards entirely and replace them with alternative standards designed unilaterally by Health and Human Services (HHS) bureaucrats without congressional input or approval. It will encourage states to use those new standards ‘in lieu of’ the work requirements written in the statute. In other words, HHS explicitly plans to jettison the work requirements provided in the law and replace them with an alternative reform model.”

Rector explains that, in practice, states can be fully exempted from the TANF work requirements if they merely raise the percentage of employment exits from 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent – a standard that is easier to meet when more people are on welfare.

There is a possibility that current or future HHS secretaries will exercise their discretion in such a way that the benefits of work requirements for welfare – one of the greatest policy triumphs of the modern era – will not be completely frittered away.  But that faith in bureaucratic judgment is a poor substitute for what it replaces.  It is clearly contrary to the will of the Congress that passed the law, and the current Congress has not been given an opportunity to vote on it.  That’s how legislation can be efficiently gutted through the abuse of executive power.