House Minority Whip Eric Cantor invited Americans to vote on government programs they’d like cut. One week and 280,000 text messages and online votes later, the first results are in: an emergency welfare fund that in some cases has been used by poor families to buy iPods.
The first program to be nominated for the chopping block through Cantor’s YouCut contest is the Emergency Contingency Fund for State TANF Programs.
Out of more than 280,000 votes cast, over 81,000 people, or 29 percent, supported getting rid of the Emergency Fund, which Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, labeled as “New Non-Reformed Welfare.”
The summary of the program on Cantor’s website said it “was recently created to incentivize states to increase their welfare caseloads without requiring able-bodied adults to work, get job training, or otherwise prepare to move off of taxpayer assistance.”
“Reforming the welfare program was one of the great achievements of the mid 1990s, saving taxpayers billions of dollars and ending the cycle of dependency on welfare,” Cantor’s site said. “This new program, created in 2009, is a backdoor way to undo those reforms.”
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) website says the Emergency Fund is designed to help states, territories or tribes that have “an increase in assistance caseloads and basic assistance expenditures, or in expenditures related to short-term benefits or subsidized employment.”
Cantor’s office said that only half of the $5 billion in the Emergency Fund has been spent but that Democrats want to continue the program for another year and add $2.5 billion more as part of a large “extenders” bill that is expected to be debated on the House floor this week.
The YouCut contest voted to end the program before the second half of the $5 billion can be spent, and to bar the $2.5 billion in additional money from being spent.
Cantor’s office said while the Emergency Fund has been praised by some as the source of jobs for low-income workers, only $400 million of the $2.4 billion spent so far has gone toward “subsidized employment.”
About $1 billion, they said, was spent on welfare checks, and another $1 billion was spent on “non-recurrent short-term assistance,” such as the $140 million that New York gave in extra payments of $200 to welfare recipients in the summer of 2009 to be spent on back to school supplies.
The money, which was added onto ATM cards already in use by welfare recipients, was used in some cases for “purchasing flat screen TV’s, iPods and video gaming systems,” according to CBS News. In other cases, the amount of recipients who decided to withdraw the extra $200 in cash resulted in ATM machines running out of money.
But Democrats on a key House Ways and Means subcommittee decried Cantor’s description of the Emergency Fund. Subcommittee chairman Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat, said in a release that the fund “does not include a program that would ‘incentivize’ States to increase the number of people on welfare or allow States to increase the number of people receiving assistance without requiring people to engage in work-related activities.”
“These Republican claims are simply false,” said the release from the income security and family support subcommittee.
The Democrats said the Emergency Fund “is expected to create 185,000 jobs” and cited support for an extension of the fund from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and American Enterprise Institute scholar Kevin Hassett.
A Barbour spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Hassett said by e-mail that “the employment part of the TANF program has probably created a good number of jobs, and much more cost effectively than the stimulus package.”
Cantor’s office responded with data from Florida, where they said the state’s labor department had expected 25,478 jobs to be created by the Emergency Fund, but as of last September only 1,093 jobs had been created.
Voters in the YouCut contest chose from five different finalist programs. The other options included cutting $260 million over five years for a presidential election fund that provides public matching funds to candidates, $600 million over five years in “taxpayer-subsidized union activities,” $2.6 billion from economic development assistance so that it goes only to needy communities, or $1 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that would go to funding doctoral dissertations.
The “union activities” program, which was not described in much detail, was a close second in the voting, receiving 27 percent support for elimination.
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said that the programs were offered as the first options of what will be a weekly event. Three of the five options were gleaned from the Republican Study Committee’s “Sunset Caucus,” which is run by Rep. Tom Price, the RSC chairman, and Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican.
Voters “have submitted over 15,000 ideas to the website. We will begin to include some of these on the website to be voted on,” Dayspring said.
On Thursday, Cantor and Price will go to the House floor to offer a measure that would cut the welfare program. They intend to use a complicated parliamentary procedure called a previous question vote that will force the House to hold a roll call vote on the issue.
“YouCut is unequivocal proof that the American people are demanding action in Washington,” Cantor said. “Later this week when we take Dr. Price’s cut to the floor, we hope the Democrats will be ready to listen to their constituents.”
Price said the measure they introduce will “restore welfare reform by refocusing temporary assistance on helping people get back on their feet as quickly as possible rather than simply expanding dependence on government.”
Cantor intends to start offering new options for voting Wednesday on their website, and he will come to the floor every Thursday with a new measure for elimination. Cantor’s press office, which is one of Capitol Hill’s most aggressive, will use the maneuver to “create a management problem” for Democratic leaders “by putting more pressure on vulnerable moderate Blue Dog Democrats each and every week.”
But Katie Grant, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said that “Democrats want to work with Republicans on serious ways to bring down the deficit, not engage in gimmicks.”
“Democrats inherited a massive fiscal disaster from Republicans, and took action and enacted the pay-as-you-go principle into law and set up a deficit commission without the help of Republicans to tackle it,” said Grant.
The YouCut program has been mocked by Democrats as offering cuts that have little impact on the overall federal budget.
“‘YouCut’” misses the mark by trillions of dollars,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Democrats have also accused Republicans of getting religion on fiscal responsibility only after it has become politically advantageous and after running up the national debt while they held control of Congress and the White House.
“Congressional Republicans are proposing less than $7 billion in cuts — to offset their nearly half a trillion dollar drug benefit, the trillion dollar war, their billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and hundreds of billions of dollars in annual payment on the Bush debt,” Elshami said.