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Welfare work requirements are a success — Obama’s plans to change them must be stopped

September 17, 2012
Washington power grabs are nothing new for the Obama administration – from bypassing the Senate to make unconstitutional recess appointments, to efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to force unionization on the American workforce, to attempts to impose costly cap and trade through the Environmental Protection Agency.  But the Obama White House has really outdone itself by sidestepping Congress with its new rule that could potentially gut the welfare-to-work requirements implemented under the landmark bipartisan welfare reforms achieved in 1996.

These historic reforms were passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. They ended the entitlement to welfare and replaced it with a more fiscally-sound block grant to the states. Known as “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF), the grant program provided states with unprecedented control over welfare programs in exchange for meeting meaningful federal work standards.

That meant that people eligible for welfare were put on a path toward self-sufficiency through the dignity associated with work.  A commitment to work is integral to helping people help themselves.  

That was 16 years ago.

Now, fast forward to this past July when the Obama administration issued an “information memorandum” telling states that they could “waive” the work requirement for welfare recipients. That would allow states to reduce the number of welfare recipients expected to work, reduce hours of work, eliminate penalties for not working, or even expand what counts as work to include “activities” like bed rest, massage, or smoking cessation classes.

In the 16 years since the creation of TANF, no administration has concluded that they have the authority to waive these work requirements.  Any changes to the 1996 welfare reform law have taken an act of Congress.

We knew President Obama was out of bounds, and so we asked the legal experts at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into it.  What’d they find?  They confirmed that the administration had gone too far and must submit this change to Congress under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).  The CRA ensures an administration cannot radically alter a law without Congressional input.

We believe in tough work requirements in welfare. That’s why we recently introduced resolutions of disapproval in both the House and the Senate to prevent the administration from weakening the core element of welfare reform. In fact, the House will be voting on this resolution this week.

President Obama and his allies have been quick to paint any objections to their work reduction scheme as politically motivated, and they have labeled anyone who questions this action as merely pawns in an election year fight. 

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Having authored and shepherded the law through Congress and to then-President Clinton’s desk, we understand that this one action threatens a program that has resulted in record numbers of low-income parents going to work, an increase in earnings, and a record-level decrease in poverty.

Those are the success stories of welfare reform.  Those successes are rooted in an agreement between states and the federal government: fixed federal funding and enormous flexibility in exchange for a requirement that they engage welfare recipients in work and related activities.

But through this power grab, which could weaken the work requirements in welfare, the Obama administration threatens future success stories.  The work requirements should and must stand.