Skip to content

Waiving Work Requirements for Welfare Recipients: One Year Later, Just another Law Ignored by the Obama Administration

July 12, 2013

Friday, July 12, 2013 marks one year since the Obama Administration first declared that it had the authority to waive the work requirements for welfare recipients. Work requirements were created in the 1996 welfare reform law, and they have been key to the success of welfare reform in increasing work and earnings and reducing poverty and welfare dependence. No prior Administration has ever claimed to have authority to waive these requirements, and for one simple reason – because it doesn’t exist in law.

Since the Administration first claimed to have this authority in July of last year, one of their key arguments has fallen apart. Although the Administration claimed their waiver policy was developed in response to states’ requests for more flexibility in 2011 and 2012, an internal HHS memo revealed that the Administration sought ways to waive work requirements and other key features of welfare reform as early as December of 2009. The House and Senate have acted to block the Administration waiver policy and – tellingly – not a single state has applied for a waiver from the work requirements. Even the Obama Administration appears to finally have seen the error of their ways, admitting in a Statement of Administration Policy on a House bill blocking HHS from waiving work requirements that “Ultimately, no State formally applied for State waivers.”

Commenting on the Administration’s earlier efforts to gut the welfare work requirements, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) stated, “If only we knew then what we know now. Looking back, it is clear that the Obama Administration’s attempt to unilaterally dismantle work requirements in welfare—requirements that have successfully lifted people out of poverty—is just one more example of an Executive branch that is out of control. That reality is only further reinforced by the Administration’s latest announcement that it will delay enforcement of the employer mandate included in the health care law, an action so questionable that even members of the President’s own party have challenged what authority permitted such a decision.”

Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has repeatedly called on the President to work in a bipartisan way to develop and submit a comprehensive and meaningful five-year TANF reauthorization proposal to Congress said, “The Obama Administration has an unfortunate track record of circumventing Congress and governing by Executive fiat instead. On this one-year anniversary, we are reminded of its unilateral decision to attempt to gut welfare work requirements, undermining the work-first approach that served as the foundation to the landmark 1996 bipartisan welfare reform law. The best way forward would be for the Administration to rollback this misguided waiver and instead work with Congress to conduct a robust reform and reexamination of this 17-year old program.”

Looking back: A Timeline of the Administration’s attempt to dismantle the welfare law

July 12, 2012: HHS issued an Information Memorandum explaining how states could seek “waivers” of welfare work requirements for the first time.

July 12, 2012: Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin G. Hatch sent a letter to HHS requesting an explanation of the Department’s legal reasoning.

July 15, 2012: The Obama campaign created a blog post characterizing their waiver guidance as a “new policy” that created “new options” for states.

July 18, 2012: HHS responded to the July 12, 2012 Camp/Hatch letter noting that many governors had expressed their support for more state flexibility within the TANF program.

July 18, 2012: Camp, along with Chairman John Kline of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Chairman Jim Jordan of the Republican Study Committee introduced H.R. 6140, the “Preserving Work Requirements for Welfare Programs Act,” which would block the Administration from waiving welfare work requirements.

July 31, 2012: Chairman Camp and Senator Hatch sent a letter requesting that GAO determine whether the HHS guidance constituted a “rule” under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which would then be subject to review and disapproval by the House and Senate.

September 4, 2012: GAO responded to the July 31 Hatch/Camp request with a letter stating that the HHS memorandum constituted a “rule” under the CRA.

September 11, 2012: Chairmen Camp and Kline introduced H.J. Res. 118, “Providing for Congressional disapproval of the Administration’s July 12, 2012 waiver of welfare work requirements,” following the structure set by the CRA to reject Executive branch rules.

September 13, 2012: Both the Ways and Means and Education and Workforce Committees marked up and approved H.J.Res. 118.

September 19, 2012: GAO released a report to Chairman Camp and Senator Hatch stating that HHS had never before granted waivers of TANF program rules, HHS had previously told states no such waiver authority existed, and only the Obama Administration had claimed this waiver authority.

September 20, 2012: The House passed H.J.Res. 118 by a vote of 250-164, including 19 Democrats who supported the resolution.

September 21, 2012: Chairman Camp and Senator Hatch sent a letter to Secretary Sebelius requesting answers to questions regarding the development of the July 12, 2012 Information Memorandum, and requesting a response by October 25, 2012.

October 25, 2012: In response to an email from Senate Finance Committee staff about whether HHS would respond to the September 21 letter, HHS staff stated “Not today.”

November 8, 2012: Inquiring about the HHS response to the September 21 letter, Senate Finance Committee staff was told by HHS staff that, “Oversight staff working on it.”

December 11, 2012: HHS failed to respond to a request by Senate Finance Committee staff about the HHS response to the September 21 letter.

December 19, 2012: Senator Hatch sent a letter to President Obama asking him to withdraw the waiver guidance and instead submit a comprehensive TANF reauthorization proposal to Congress.

December 20, 2012: In a Senate Finance Committee hearing, Senator Hatch raised the lack of a response to the September 21 letter with HHS General Counsel nominee William Schultz. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus advised the nominee to respond to Senator Hatch’s request. HHS staff was present during the hearing, but no response followed from HHS.

January 7, 2013: Senate Finance Committee staff again requested an update about the status of a response to the September 21, 2012 letter.

January 8, 2013: HHS responded they would “check on this.”

January 14, 2013: Senate Finance Committee staff repeated the request for a response.

January 22, 2013: Senate Finance Committee staff repeated the request for a response.

February 4, 2013: Chairman Camp and Senator Hatch sent a letter to HHS detailing the delays in the agency’s response to their September 21, 2012 letter.

February 4, 2013: Secretary Sebelius responded to the September 21, 2012 Camp/Hatch letter, providing the same legal reasoning for waivers she provided in her July 18, 2012 letter. HHS also indicated that staff would contact the Committee on Ways and Means “to address [Chairman Camp’s] concerns.”

February 8, 2013: Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committee Republican staff travelled to HHS and reviewed internal legal memos and emails regarding the development of the HHS waiver guidance, which revealed that HHS discussions on waiving work requirements and other provisions of TANF law began at least as early as November 2009.

February 28, 2013: Senator Hatch testified at a House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources hearing on waivers of work requirements, reiterating his strong opposition to the Obama Administration’s unilateral decision to undermine welfare work requirements and saying Congress must act to stop this overreach by the Obama Administration.

February 28, 2013: Chairman Dave Camp introduced H.R. 890, the “Preserving the Welfare Work Requirement and TANF Extension Act of 2013,” which would prohibit HHS from waiving welfare work requirements.

March 6, 2013: The Ways and Means Committee held a markup and approved H.R. 890.

March 12, 2013: The Obama Administration issued a Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 890, noting that “Ultimately, no States formally applied for State waivers” of welfare work requirements.

March 13, 2013: The House approved H.R. 890 by a vote of 246-181, including 18 Democrats who supported the bill.

June 27, 2013: The Senate approved S. 744, bipartisan immigration legislation by a vote of 68 to 32. The measure included a key Hatch provision that prevents the Obama Administration from waiving current rules and thereby allowing the payment of federal welfare funds for noncitizens.

July 12, 2013: One year after the Administration announced its intention to waive welfare work requirements, no states have applied.