The Case for Romney’s welfare attack

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Romney has a point on welfare: As Maggie Haberman notes, Romney’s attack on Obama over welfare reform must have tested well, given the President’s firehose-like stream of defenses. Many of those defenses are bogus. Some points:

1. The ad: Romney’s ad is overstated and oversimplified. The July 12 HHS policy he’s criticizing doesn’t in itself undo the 1996 welfare reform, or even its work requirements. But it opens the door for a lot of mischief and represents a step in the wrong direction, away from the “Work First” philosophy that animated the ’96 effort.  Veteran welfare analyst Douglas Besharov (a moderate conservative whom Hillary Clinton consulted before her husband signed the ’96 bill) says,

The intent of the administration is to change the way welfare reform is operated. The domestic policy staff doesn’t believe in ‘work first’; they want education, job training, and support. If they had their way, they would have gotten those provisions in the [2005]reauthorization [of the law].

They lost that battle. Now they seem to be trying to get what they failed to get in ’05 through executive “waivers,” “flexibility,” and “demonstration” projects. Not a small deal.

2. Gutting: Again, the waivers can’t “gut” the ’96 law in that (among other things) a) welfare used to be an “entitlement.” It isn’t anymore; b) it used to be that HHS bureaucrats could tell states that wanted to require work they couldn’t. In terms of what will actually happen on the ground anytime soon, “guts” is way too strong a word–especially now that the Obama administration is madly backpedaling and claiming it really just wants  work.

But in legal terms, “guts” isn’t inapt. Congress put a lot of effort into resisting efforts by governors (including GOP governors), bureaucrats, paleoliberals, and non-profit softies to water down the work requirements (by allowing, for example, extended “job search” or BS-type activities like self-esteem classes, and more generally by emphasizing what will help “place” existing recipients in “good” private jobs instead of deterring possible future recipients from making the choices that land them on welfare).

The authors of the law thought they’d restricted HHS’ authority to undermine the work requirements. Comes now HHS secretary Sebelius to claim she has broad authority to dispense with all those requirements through waivers, subject only to her opinion as to what is “likely to assist in promoting the objectives” of the welfare law.  TNR‘s Ed Kilgore loyally declares ,”The Obama administration has not changed the architecture of the 1996 welfare reform law at all.”  But that’s wrong. The legal architecture of the work requirements has been altered dramatically. Old system: Congress writes the requirements, which are … requirements. New system: Sebelius does what she wants–but, hey, you can trust her!

In practice, of course, this won’t instantly “gut” the law, partly because the politics of welfare have changed and no governor wants to see his caseload increase. But HHS’s move eviscerates the statutory restrictions on its ability to gut the reform down the road.  Will that happen? Depends on what they do. It didn’t used to depend on what they do.

3. Of course they are weakening the work requirements: Bill Clinton says it’s “not true” that “the Obama administration ha[s] weakened the work requirements of the 1996 Welfare Reform.” Jonathan Alter righteously declares:  “Romney welfare attack on BO phony. It’s GOP govs who want the welfare waivers and they don’t weaken work requirements.”  And he’s going on MSNBC to tell it! Kleinblogger Dylan Matthews tweets to me: “None of these waivers have been proposed let alone approved. I have no idea how you think you know their contents.” Er, because I’ve read the initial HHS memo on the waivers, and they give their examples of the sort of waivers they want to grant, and they weaken work requirements.  For example, HHS said states “may want to consider”

Projects that test systematically extending the period in which vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs count toward participation rates, either generally or for particular subgroups, such as an extended training period for those pursuing a credential.

Translation: you’ll keep getting a welfare check for “training” or for “job readiness,” or for going to school for an “extended … period,”even though the law would otherwise say it’s time to get to work. This may be a good idea. It may be a bad idea. But it’s a weakening of the work requirement. (It’s also unfair to the poor suckers who just go to work without ever going on welfare–they don’t get subsidized while they’re “pursuing a credential.”)

4. Sebelius’ 20% promise–Hey there, Ari! After conservatives like Robert Rector publicized HHS’s quiet summer afternoon waiver change and some GOP politicians kicked up a stink, Sebelius wrote a highly political damage-controlling letter in which seemingly from nowhere she produced an appealing “20 percent” promise. As NPR’s Ari Shapiro puts it, the new rules

don’t end the work requirement. In fact, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter says it’s just the opposite. “States that get waivers have to increase job placement by 20 percent.” So states won’t get a waiver unless they show that they can do a better job putting people back to work than under the existing program.

Shapiro is a bit off. What Sebelius actually said is that governors must “commit that their propoals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance,” [E.A.] not compared to what would happen under the existing program. Phrases like “compared to the states past performance” don’t just get stuck into official letters to add poetic lilt.  As Rector argues:

This sounds impressive, but a state can accomplish this merely by raising monthly “employment exits” (people exiting welfare to take a job) from, say, 5 percent to 6 percent of its caseload. That kind of change will occur automatically as the economy improves.

In other words, a state that doesn’t move many people from welfare to work can raise its pathetically low number of job placements by a fifth and get excused from meeting the welfare reform law’s much tougher standards. And one way to get credit for more “exits” is to run lots of people through the system–including people who would normally bypass welfare entirely on their way to getting jobs. “Given the normal turnover rate in welfare programs, the easiest way to increase the number of individuals moving from ‘welfare to work’ is to increase the number entering welfare in the first place,” writes Rector. Bringing people into unnecessary contact with the welfare system is, of course, exactly what the ’96 law was designed to avoid.

I’m sure there are other scams that will get states to Sebelius’ number. It’s even not hard to imagine that states would get so much extra credit under HHS waivers that lots of welfare recipients could be left sitting at home, getting a check, without having to work or train or do anything–just what Romney’s (oversimplified) ad claims will happen.

Of course, since Sebelius guts interprets the law to grant herelf unchecked authority, she or her successors could always drop her ex cathedra 20% rule.

5) The hypocrisy charge: The Obama campaign makes a big deal of a letter Romney signed backing a Senate bill during the 2005 reauthorization debate. a) It’s not a letter signed by Romney individually. It’s a group letter from the Republican Governors’ association, and like many such political documents is studiously vague–for example, it doesn’t really say which “work activities” it wants to be “allowable.”b) The Senate bill failed to make it into law, meaning HHS officials did not get the bill’s “increased waiver authority.” And yet, here they are … c) Governors–Dems and GOPs–always lobby for maximum money and minimum requirements. When they change jobs they change their behavior.  d) Romney was governor of Massachusetts, which is not a conservative, tough-on-welfare state. Plus he’s Romney. It’s completely conceivable that in 2005 he was for federal work provisions he now opposes.  So? He can be a huge wuss! The point is he’s right now and Obama is wrong.

6) Will Mark Greenberg cost Obama the White House?: Obama has always had an ambiguous position on the ’96 welfare reform--sort of formerly against it, but sort of not against it–and smart enough to realize that outright opposition was politically toxic. One way to indicate his actual support of the ’96 law would have been to not appoint some of its cleverest opponents, like attorney Mark Greenberg, to implement it. But no such luck. Now Greenberg’s HHS has made welfare a hot issue again for the first time in 15 years. The part of the Romney campaign’s spin that seems falsest is the idea that Obama unveiled his new waiver policy for political reasons. It seems more like a political disaster–and if Romney’s ads move the polls in Ohio we’ll know it’s a disaster.

It’s also a disaster for Democrats in a broader sense, because it was Clinton’s ’96 welfare reform–specifically its work requirement–that laid the basis for an expansion of government benefits in other areas. Once voters were convinced that Democrats weren’t in the socially destructive business of sending checks to people who can work but don’t, they were much more ready to fund Medicaid, the earned income tax credit–and, ultimately, the broad expansion of health care coverage Obama campaigned and won on. All that is now in peril. If Greenberg’s change is as insignificant as the MSM now says it is, it will be the stupidest tradeoff in recent political history. And if Clinton isn’t privately pissed, he should be.

Mickey Kaus