Inside Paul Ryan’s Next Big Thing: Welfare Reform

Draft legislation of “the biggest redesign of TANF in its history” will be reviewed on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is trailed by reporters while walking through Statuary Hall the U.S. Capitol building, June 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Yesterday House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his Virginia primary to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat, opening a slot for Majority Leader.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
July 14, 2015, 4:01 p.m.

House Ways and Means Chair­man Paul Ry­an is ready to test his luck on a dif­fi­cult and of­ten-thank­less task: wel­fare re­form.

Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an staffers have been quietly work­ing on le­gis­la­tion to sig­ni­fic­antly over­haul the Tem­por­ary As­sist­ance for Needy Fam­il­ies pro­gram since late April, ac­cord­ing to aides for both parties. A draft bill gets its first pub­lic air­ing Wed­nes­day in a sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing.

The bill is a pri­or­ity for Ry­an, and both sides agree that the ma­jor­ity has act­ively worked to in­cor­por­ate Demo­crat­ic ideas in­to the pro­pos­al, provid­ing real op­tim­ism that law­makers could pass something this Con­gress, a dec­ade since TANF was last reau­thor­ized. But as al­ways when “wel­fare re­form” and so­cial spend­ing are on the dock­et, the bill will surely have to sidestep some land mines to be en­acted.

(RE­LATED: So­cial Is­sue Head­aches Con­tin­ue for House GOP)

Ry­an said Tues­day that he was op­tim­ist­ic that wel­fare re­form would get done. His Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­part was a little more coy.

“I think it’s use­ful to be dis­cuss­ing it,” Ways and Means rank­ing mem­ber Sander Lev­in said. “I hope it’s con­struct­ive.”

The dis­cus­sion draft still has un­fin­ished sec­tions, and those in­volved em­phas­ized that the ef­fort has a long way to go.

But if a bill re­sem­bling the cur­rent draft gets done, every­body agrees it would be the most sig­ni­fic­ant makeover of TANF — cre­ated in 1996 un­der Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton and a Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress to re­place the pre­vi­ous wel­fare pro­gram — since its in­cep­tion. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and states spend about $30 bil­lion an­nu­ally on TANF, which serves about 2 mil­lion fam­il­ies.

(RE­LATED: House GOP Pulls An­oth­er Bill From Floor Over Abor­tion)

“If something close to this gets en­acted, this would be the biggest re­design of TANF in its his­tory,” said Liz Schott, seni­or fel­low at the lib­er­al Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies. “It’s look­ing like the most ser­i­ous move­ment we’ve seen in a while.”

Ry­an said in the lame-duck ses­sion last year that he wanted to pur­sue wel­fare re­form once he had the Ways and Means gavel. But the is­sue largely flew un­der the radar while Con­gress pur­sued a per­man­ent fix to the flawed Medi­care doc­tor-pay­ment for­mula, de­bated fast-track trade au­thor­ity, and waited for the Su­preme Court to rule on the fu­ture of the Af­ford­able Care Act.

It was after an April 30 hear­ing on ideas for im­prov­ing wel­fare that staffers got to work on the re­cently re­leased dis­cus­sion draft. Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an aides said that they have been in con­sist­ent con­tact de­vel­op­ing the bill, with the goal of pro­du­cing something that could ac­tu­ally pass and be signed by Pres­id­ent Obama. Louisi­ana GOP Rep. Charles Bous­tany and Texas Demo­crat­ic Rep. Lloyd Dog­gett are the top mem­bers of the pan­el that meets Wed­nes­day, and they have also shaped the bill.

TANF hasn’t been prop­erly reau­thor­ized since 2005, and its cur­rent ex­ten­sion ends Sept. 30.

Three changes would likely have the biggest im­pact.

(RE­LATED: The Re­pub­lic­an Es­tab­lish­ment’s Ma­jor Di­vide)

First, it would al­low states to count more activ­it­ies — such as job-skills train­ing and edu­ca­tion — to­ward the pro­gram’s work re­quire­ments. States os­tens­ibly are re­quired to have at least 50 per­cent of their TANF re­cip­i­ents par­ti­cip­ate in some kind of work activ­ity for a set num­ber of hours per week to avoid fin­an­cial pen­al­ties.

Second, it would elim­in­ate a num­ber of loop­holes that states have used to count to­ward that work-activ­ity meas­ure­ment, mean­ing states would have to have more people ac­tu­ally work­ing to re­ceive be­ne­fits. Aides cited those two pro­vi­sions as an ex­ample of the bill’s bi­par­tis­an nature: Demo­crats have long wanted more activ­it­ies to count as work and Re­pub­lic­ans have wanted to en­sure that more be­ne­fi­ciar­ies par­ti­cip­ate in work activ­it­ies.

Third, the bill would cre­ate a new ac­count­ab­il­ity sys­tem. States would have new out­come met­rics to meas­ure wheth­er people leav­ing TANF found em­ploy­ment and in­creased their in­come. If states fail to meet the met­rics, they could lose a por­tion of their TANF fund­ing start­ing in 2018, which they would be able to earn back as they made im­prove­ments.

(RE­LATED: This Is Why Paul Ry­an Didn’t Run for Pres­id­ent)

Those are also some of the pro­vi­sions that could trip the le­gis­la­tion up as it at­tracts more pub­lic scru­tiny. Some Demo­crats might not be happy that the pro­gram’s spend­ing is kept flat. TANF was cre­ated as a set block grant, so lib­er­als em­phas­ize that its real value has de­clined since 1996. On the oth­er side, con­ser­vat­ives could take is­sue with ex­pand­ing what counts as work to­ward the pro­gram’s re­quire­ments.

In a year in which he’s been at the fore­front of al­most every ma­jor policy de­bate, Ry­an has put an­oth­er am­bi­tious item on his to-do list.

“We need to do an­oth­er round of wel­fare re­form, not as an ex­er­cise to save money, but as an ex­er­cise to save lives and to get people from wel­fare to work and real­ize op­por­tun­ity and up­ward mo­bil­ity,” he said earli­er this year, “be­cause there are too many people who don’t think the Amer­ic­an idea is ever there for them again, and that’s a tragedy.”

What We're Following See More »
Kelly Craft Nominated for UN Post
9 hours ago
Trump Signs Border Deal
1 weeks ago

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Trump Declares National Emergency
1 weeks ago

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
1 weeks ago

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
1 weeks ago

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.