Welfare fight, Round Four

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Keeping up with … Obama’s welfare waivers: In case you’ve been distracted from the ongoing dispute over Obama’s controversial welfare waivers–in which his Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claims the power to waive (and weaken) the work requirements of the 1996 welfare reform law–there have been these recent developments:

1) Sen. Hatch (R-Utah) and Reps. Camp, Kline and others have obtained an opinion from the GAO that the “Information Memorandum” from HHS is a “rule,” meaning it is subject to a vote of disapproval in each house of Congress (which if passed is then subject to a presidential veto). Hatch, Camp et al are now pushing for such a vote. It is likely to occur in the House within days, but in the Senate it will probably happen after the election. Meaning that Obama won’t be put on the spot when it might have an impact. …

2) Democrats who defend the legality of HHS’ action are waving around a Congressional Research Service report. But it’s incredibly weak–as if desperately trying to serve up some sort of heavily conditioned conclusion that would work for the Dems.  “If a court determines … then a court is likely to find the Secretary’s interpretation .. in so far as they incorporate … to be a reasonable interpretation. …. As such, a court would be likely to defer … An argument may be made that …. If a court were asked to review … there would appear to be a sound basis for the reviewing court to uphold …” etc. Here is the argument on other side.   … My take: Not open. Not shut. HHS has long contended it has the right, in the name of waiving what states have to report, to also waive the underlying requirements the states are reporting about.  But this power-grabby claim has apparently not been tested in court. Plus this is a new statute, accompanied by abundant evidence that Congress didn’t want HHS to be able to waive the underlying work requirements. If the waivers are challenged in court, HHS could easily lose.  I doubt they want to take that chance.

3) I’m still looking for the plank in the Democratic party platform that endorses work-based welfare reform. It must be there somewhere. If you can find it, let me know. … P.S.: You would think Obama’s convention speech would also have been a good place to quickly and forcefully rebut the GOP charge that he wants to eviscerate welfare work requirements. I can’t find that passage either. … Meanwhile, Bill Clinton has told Buzzfeed reporters that “Obama had asked him to make two modifications to [Clinton’s convention] speech — one on Medicare and one on welfare — but wouldn’t specify what they were.” Hmm ….

4) Glenn Kessler, WaPo fact-checker, gave  Clinton two “Pinocchios” for claiming that the new Obama”requirement was for more work, not less.”  I would have given him four. Clinton is relying on Secretary Sebelius “20%” requirement that is a) bogus and b) was added by the Obama administration in an apparent damage-control move after the “waiver” memo was issued. But Kessler’s analysis is more even-handed than anything Romney’s gotten out of the Checkretariat so far.  …

5) New 2011 poverty numbers are out–and the rate did not rise, as many expected. It actually ticked down a tiny bit.  Same for child poverty. Gloom-seeking reporters were forced to turn to other issues (inequality, wage levels). Why isn’t poverty rising as fast as you’d expect, given the depth of the recession and continuing crappy economy? Possibilities: 1) Maybe the labor market isn’t as bad at the bottom as it is in the middle–you can still get a poor-paying job if you want one. And 2)  maybe some of the credit goes to … welfare reform, which pushed lots poor single moms into this not-so-awful bottom-rung labor market. It may be easier (though hardly easy) to weather a nasty recession if you are out there working regularly as opposed to fitfully. Just a thought! … P.S.: Here is a whole Brookings instant symposium on the new numbers. Economist Gary Burtless, for one, discusses the failure of poverty to rise as much as you would expect. He gives some credit to the stimulus. …

Mickey Kaus