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The Truth About Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Welfare Reform

September 25, 2012
Earlier this year the Obama administration announced it would be issuing waivers that affect the work requirement included in the landmark reform of the nation’s welfare system. As soon as they did, politicians on both sides of the aisle ran to the barricades, digging in for a protracted fight.

The Republicans—led by GOP president nominee Mitt Romney—immediately accused President Barack Obama of “gutting” welfare reform. Obama and his allies fired back that Romney was “lying” and that, in any case, the requested waivers were bipartisan in nature.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who pushed the bill through Congress not once but three times—strongly opined that the Obama waivers would be the end of reform. Former President Bill Clinton, who vetoed welfare reform twice before signing it on the eve of the 1996 Democratic National Convention—and then only after his consultant, Dick Morris, suggested he might lose the election if he failed to do so—said the proposed waivers would have little if any effect on the program.

That so many big names are weighing in on what are typically considered esoteric changes in policy reveals just how much is at stake. If Romney and the Republicans are right, then Obama is demonstrably a liberal in the George McGovern-Michael Dukakis mode with little claim on the centrist mantle, having indeed gutted the biggest reform in domestic policy since Lyndon Johnson and The Great Society.

The Government Accountability Office, an independent federal agency, has weighed in on the side of the GOP—at least as far as Obama’s authority to waive the tough work requirements that are the cornerstone of the new law is concerned.

In early September the agency issued a report that stated the waivers the administration had announced could not be accomplished unilaterally and needed, instead, to be submitted to Congress for approval.

“Despite the Obama administration’s attempts to unilaterally undo welfare work requirements, this analysis is unequivocal that any changes must be submitted to Congress,” said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and one of the two members of Congress who asked the Government Accountability Office to look into the issue. “Circumventing Congress, as this White House has done, is a flagrant abuse of our system of checks and balances and an insult to American taxpayers. Work requirements were a critical part of the landmark 1996 Welfare Reform law and should not be scrapped by the Obama administration.”

“President Obama has a long history of opposing tough work requirements in welfare,” said Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who also asked the Government Accountability Office to study the issue. “Despite his latest attempt at an end-run around Congress, this Accountability Office report clearly states that the administration must submit this rule to Congress for review before it can take effect. Work requirements were the centerpiece of welfare reform, and we cannot allow that progress to be undone.”

On Thursday the House of Representatives, in a bipartisan vote of 250 to 164, disapproved of the administration’s effort to undermine the work requirement.   

“The House has taken an important step today to stop the Obama administration from waiving the requirement that welfare recipients work in order to receive benefits,” Camp said after the House voted. “Not only does the administration not have the authority to waive welfare work requirements, it is bad policy to do so. The welfare work requirement has led to more jobs and paychecks and less poverty and welfare dependence. The Senate should not leave for the campaign until they have voted on this legislation,” which, of course, is exactly what they did.

It seems pretty clear that Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services was changing the work requirements in unhelpful ways. There’s broad agreement on this point, with everyone from liberal writer Mickey Kaus to Robert Rector, the welfare policy guru at the conservative Heritage Foundation, weighing in against what Obama wants to do. Expanding the definition of work to include things like journaling, massage therapy, and bed rest, which is part of what the Obama administration has proposed, renders the work requirement essentially meaningless. Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services has taken it upon itself to rewrite the law and take it in a direction Congress specifically did not intend when it passed the reforms in 1996.

If you don’t believe that maintaining tough work requirements are necessary to keeping welfare reform intact, then Romney and the GOP were in fact wrong when they said the Obama administration had acted to end welfare reform. If, on the other hand, you believe welfare reform only works if the work requirements remain as they were, then Romney and his allies were right: Obama is trying to “gut” welfare reform—and the Congress, the House of Representatives at least, has called him on it. The Senate should come back into session and follow suit.