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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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