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Memo Confirms Obama Administration Long Planned to Undermine Welfare Work Requirements, Ignore Welfare Prohibitions as Far Back as 2009

May 07, 2013

WASHINGTON – House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) today released a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) internal memo that confirms that as early as 2009, the Obama Administration was actively exploring ways to circumvent welfare work requirements and other key provisions that were the cornerstone of the 1996 landmark bipartisan welfare reform law.  In July 2012, the Obama Administration unilaterally granted itself the authority to exempt states from those work requirements arguing that states had requested that flexibility.  This memo shows, Hatch and Camp argue, that the Obama Administration was interested in pursuing ways to weaken these work requirements from the first year it came into office, and that the Administration sought authority to waive much more than just work requirements.
 “This memo seriously undermines the Obama Administration’s timeline and credibility on their proposal to waive the critical welfare work requirement,” said Camp.  “It is clear that from the outset of his presidency, President Obama and his advisors searched for ways to increase benefits and disconnect them from work.  The welfare work requirement was part of the overwhelmingly successful 1996 welfare reforms that led to more work and earnings and less poverty and dependence.  The Administration’s efforts to dismantle this work requirement – and their false premises for doing so – are simply unacceptable.”

“I’ve been more than a little skeptical of the Obama Administration’s argument that they were purely responding to the needs of the states when they unilaterally chose to undermine welfare work requirements, and this memo confirms my skepticism, “ said Hatch. “From the first year the Obama Administration took power, it was trying to find any legal and policy justification to permit the weakening of welfare reforms that demand work in exchange for government benefits.  They used states’ desire for flexibility as a stalking horse to justify this massive executive branch power grab.  This sets a very dangerous precedent and it’s time the Administration admit that this was their goal all along.”
In July 2012, HHS issued an Information Memorandum to states granting the Secretary the authority to waive federal work requirements in welfare programs, potentially opening the door for activities like bed rest, smoking cessation and exercise to qualify as a “work activity” permitting individuals to receive welfare checks from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  Although the Administration claimed their 2012 action was being taken at the request of states that wanted more flexibility, the 2009 HHS memo demonstrates that the Administration was planning to take this action well before states supposedly asked for this authority in 2011.  The 2009 memo also reveals that the Administration sought to waive much more than work requirements, as the Administration specifically asked HHS lawyers whether they could justify waiving the five-year time limit on receipt of TANF benefits as well as other restrictions on how TANF funds can be spent.
Hatch and Camp have introduced separate pieces of legislation to prohibit the Obama Administration from unilaterally granting itself the authority to exempt states from the work requirements arguing that the Administration’s action threatens to undermine the bipartisan welfare reform law, which has resulted in some of the greatest progress against poverty and dependence in our nation’s history.  Results of the law include:

  • Sharp increases in work and earnings by single mothers;
  • A 30 percent drop in poverty among female-headed families with children; and
  • Record declines in welfare dependence, with the TANF rolls remaining 57 percent below pre-reform levels even after the 2007 recession.

If congressional action is not taken to reverse the Executive Branch overreach, the new policy could allow people who are ineligible under current law to receive welfare benefits.  The 2009 HHS memo, which was recently released to Committee staff, provides detailed information regarding the scope of the Secretary’s presumed authority to waive key features of welfare reform, potentially allowing states to use federal TANF funds to provide welfare benefits to ineligible aliens, fugitive felons, and parole violators, among others.  HHS staff also suggested the Secretary could allow States to pay federal welfare benefits for longer than five years, overcoming the lifetime 5-year limit included in the 1996 reforms.  Hatch, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, plans to offer an amendment to block such efforts by the Administration during this week’s markup of S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.
Legislation introduced by Chairman Camp thwarting the Administration’s waiver scheme has twice passed the House of Representatives, in September 2012 and March 2013.  The measure introduced by Senator Hatch responds to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found that the Administration’s unilateral July 2012 memorandum qualifies as a rule that must be submitted to Congress and is subject to review – and potential disapproval – under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).