Obama faces Capitol Hill revolt after gutting welfare reform work requirements

A coalition of Republicans in the House and Senate vowed to preserve the work requirements at the heart of welfare reform after the Obama administration announced last week it would illegally gut the 1996 law. Lawmakers could vote in the coming days on a plan that prohibits the administration from implementing its unilateral action.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a policy directive on July 12 that grants waiver authority for the work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The new directive give states the authority to waive work requirements, “opening the door for activities like bed rest, smoking cessation and exercise to be counted as work,” the lawmakers warned. Congress specifically excluded this action when it adopted the law in 1996 to prevent abuse.

The administration’s move provoked a swift reaction on Capitol Hill. The new legislation, Preserving Work Requirements for Welfare Programs Act, was spearheaded by House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI), Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), ranking member of the Finance Committee.

Camp promised quick action in the House:

The Obama Administration has once again overstepped its bounds, this time to the detriment of those struggling most under their failed economic policies. The Administration’s unprecedented efforts to undo welfare reforms that resulted in higher earnings and employment for low-income Americans cannot be allowed to stand.

This legislation, which I expect the House to consider in the coming days, simply reaffirms what the law already says — that the work requirements at the heart of welfare reform may not be waived. I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting and passing this important bill and bringing a swift resolution to this matter.

The 1996 reforms, a signature achievement of the Clinton administration, have helped millions of Americans escape poverty. They were also a key step to reducing dependence on government. Child poverty rates in female-headed households are lower today than before the reforms, according to the lawmakers.

In addition to being questionable policy, the Obama administration’s action is also illegal, according to an analysis of the HHS memorandum by The Heritage Foundation’s Todd Gaziano and Robert Alt. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has yet to respond to a request from Camp and Hatch explaining the legal justification. She has ignored their July 16 deadline and has refused to answer. Now, through legislation, they will attempt to block any action on her part.

Looking beyond the current controversy, Obama appears to have created an opportunity to refocus the country’s attention on the growing welfare state. Jordan, who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee, introduced the Welfare Reform Act of 2011 to require recipients of food stamps to work or prepare for a job, disclose the costs of total federal, state, and local welfare spending, and return welfare spending to its 2007 level once unemployment hits 6.5 percent.

TANF, the program Clinton and Congress reformed in 1996, is just one of 77 welfare programs run by the federal government. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, who played an instrumental role in the 1996 reforms, puts the total cost at nearly $1 trillion for taxpayers. It has skyrocketed under Obama (emphasis added):

Obama has increased federal means-tested welfare spending by a third since taking office. Last year, combined federal and state spending on means-tested welfare hit $927 billion. (Social Security and Medicare are not included in this total.)

Welfare spending amounts to $9,040 per year for each lower-income American. If converted to cash and simply given to the recipients, this spending would be more than sufficient to bring the income of every lower-income American household to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $44,000 per year for a family of four).

Remarkably, Obama plans to increase spending on means-tested welfare spending further after the current recession ends, spreading the wealth through a dramatic, permanent expansion of the welfare state. The President’s own budget calls for a permanent increase in annual means-tested spending from 4.5 percent to 6 percent of gross domestic product. Combined annual federal and state spending would reach $1.56 trillion in 2022. Overall, President Obama plans to spend $12.7 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade.

Rob Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism operation at The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertBluey

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Jazz Shaw 5:01 PM on March 20, 2023