Republicans are upset with Barack Obama — again. This time it is about welfare. Not the constitutionality and legitimacy of federal welfare programs, but their structure and requirements. No one should think for a minute that Republicans are opposed to the welfare state. After all, it is their welfare state.
The latest brouhaha erupted because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is quietly notifying states that they may seek a waiver from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program’s work requirements. The waiver allows states to provide assistance without having to enforce the work requirements of the program.
Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of gutting the bipartisan welfare reform enacted in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).
Of course, that is not how the White House sees it:
Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services released guidance regarding waivers for the TANF program. These waivers will strengthen welfare reform by accelerating job placement and moving more Americans from welfare to work. Under this policy, no waivers that undercut work requirements in welfare reform will be approved. This policy will allow States to test new, more effective ways to help people get and keep a job. For years, Republican and Democratic Governors have requested more flexibility in implementing welfare reform so they can meet their States’ specific needs.
In the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” After vetoing two earlier welfare-reform proposals passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, he signed the PRWORA into law on August 22, 1996, stating that the legislation “gives us a chance we haven’t had before to break the cycle of dependency that has existed for millions and millions of our fellow citizens, exiling them from the world of work. It gives structure, meaning, and dignity to most of our lives.”
The 1996 welfare reform didn’t exactly end welfare as anyone knew it. It replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the aforementioned TANF program. Instead of the government’s just mailing out welfare checks to recipients who did nothing in return but spend the money, the new TANF program came with work standards that had to be met by at least 40 percent of adult TANF recipients. The new standards required able-bodied welfare recipients to work or engage in “work activities,” such as on-the-job training, attending high school or a GED program, vocational education, community-service work, job-readiness training, or looking for work as a condition for receiving aid. The minimum level of participation was 20 hours per week for mothers with children under six and 30 hours for mothers with older children. A lifetime limit of five years to receive benefits was also imposed.
After the HHS issued its rule weakening the TANF program’s work requirements, Republicans in the House and Senate introduced legislation to prohibit the secretary of HHS from implementing or taking action on its guidance memo on TANF waivers and from authorizing, approving, renewing, modifying, or extending any experimental, pilot, or demonstration project that waives compliance with TANF work requirements. And any waiver described in the HHS guidance memo granted before the date such legislation is enacted would be rescinded.
“The Obama administration’s action last week was illegitimate and totally misguided,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, Republican Study Committee chairman. “The Obama administration has once again overstepped its bounds, this time to the detriment of those struggling most under their failed economic policies,” said Rep. Dave Camp, House Ways and Means Committee chairman. “Gutting welfare work requirements with the stroke of a pen and without congressional input is simply unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, Senate Finance Committee ranking member.
Camp and Hatch sent a letter to HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius stating that “if Congress had intended to allow waivers of TANF work requirements, it would have said so in the statute.” She replied, “No plan that undercuts the goal of moving people from welfare to work will be considered or approved.”
The TANF program was up for reauthorization in 2002. After several temporary extensions were granted to continue the program, it was reauthorized through fiscal year 2010 under the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. Since then it has been extended at various times and is currently authorized through September 30, 2012.
What is so insidious about the TANF program is that, unlike welfare programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and WIC, it pays cash benefits.
So instead of actually putting America on the path to ending welfare as we know it when they held a majority in the Congress during the last six years of Clinton’s presidency, Republicans merely reformed and improved welfare. Then, when they controlled the Congress from January 2002 to January 2006 and had a Republican president to sign their legislation, Republicans extended the TANF program before reauthorizing it in 2005. Because all the Democrats and only five Republicans voted against the bill (S.1932) containing the TANF reauthorization, Vice President Dick Cheney, in his role as president of the Senate, had to cast the tie-breaking vote. The House version passed by the slim margin of 217-215, with all the Democrats and 14 Republicans voting against it. Former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul voted against it; current Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan voted in favor of it.
But it is not just the TANF program that makes the welfare state a Republican welfare state.
The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which provides federally funded health insurance to children in families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid, was created by the Republican-controlled Congress in 1997 and reauthorized without a whimper under George W. Bush.
In 1998, when Republicans still controlled both Houses of Congress, they introduced and passed the William F. Goodling Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (H.R.3874), which greatly expanded the federal school-lunch program. It passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. In the House, only Ron Paul voted against it.
In 2003, with a Republican president in the White House and Republican control of the House and Senate, Republicans introduced and passed their own health-care bill: the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act (H.R.1). It was the largest expansion of the welfare state since Medicare was instituted as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Only 9 Republicans in the Senate and 25 in the House voted against more socialized medicine.
In 2004, with the Republicans still firmly in control of the government, they introduced and passed the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act (S.2507). It passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, passed without objection in the House, and was eagerly signed into law by a Republican president.
When the Republican Party controlled Congress for six years under Clinton and for more than four years under George W. Bush, it made no attempt whatsoever to eliminate other welfare programs such as farm subsidies, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), energy assistance, housing assistance, food stamps, Head Start, or Medicaid. It actually greatly expanded refundable tax credits such as the earned income credit, which grew from a maximum of $2,528 the year of the so-called Republican Revolution to a whopping $4,824 the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency.
Republicans are among the most vocal supporters of the two largest welfare programs in existence, Social Security and Medicare. In the House Republican “Pledge to America,” issued on the eve of the 2010 election, Republicans promised to “make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations.”
According to Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, “The federal government operates more than 80 means-tested welfare programs to provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income people.” What have Republicans ever done to eliminate any of them?
The welfare state is a Republican welfare state.
Republicans are content merely to reform welfare programs, to change them, or to make them more efficient. It is only when they are not in power that they talk about cutting them. We can clearly see this in Rector’s conclusion:
Obama plans to spend $12.7 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade. Our nation should take the opposite course. Welfare-to-work requirements should be restored in TANF. Similar work requirements should be established in parallel programs such as food stamps and public housing. Finally, when the recession ends, total welfare spending should be rolled back to pre-recession levels.
Contrast that with what Ron Paul recently said at a rally for him in Tampa on the eve of the Republican National Convention: “We don’t want a more efficient government; we want to get the government out of the business it’s not supposed to be doing.”
The provision of welfare, whatever it is called and whatever form it takes, is neither a constitutional nor legitimate function of government.