In mid-July, hopes in the Paul Ryan-led House Ways and Means Committee were high about the prospects for the biggest bipartisan welfare-reform effort in 20 years. Republicans and Democrats were engaged in the effort and expressing optimism both publicly and privately.
Two months later, things are in danger of falling apart.
Prominent outside conservatives at groups including the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute have made clear they would oppose some of the major aspects of the draft bill introduced this summer that would overhaul the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Democrats are in turn signaling a willingness to walk away if the legislation moves too far to the right.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and one of the main authors of the 1996 welfare-reform bill that created TANF, said in an interview that he “would not support” the draft’s proposed changes to the program’s work-participation rate—namely, expanding how much some kinds of education and other job training count toward the work requirement that states and recipients must meet.
Rector and others also oppose the draft bill’s elimination of the caseload-reduction credit, which helps states meet TANF’s work requirements if they lower the number of people on their welfare rolls. Conservatives credit the policy with decreasing dependence on welfare.
Despite those concerns with the initial draft, however, Rector expressed confidence that the final product would be improved from his point of view.
“I’m pretty confident they’re going to produce a good bill,” he said. “Welfare reform in the 1990’s was probably the paramount achievement of the Republican Congress, and I expect them to go forward with the main principles of that reform.”
In all, it is a delicate balancing act for Republicans. They can and may push on without the Democrats. But if the talks fall through and the issue descends into partisan gridlock that can’t overcome a Democratic filibuster in the Senate or President Obama’s veto pen, it will be an ignoble end to nearly a year of work. Ryan had signaled his interest in pursuing welfare reform this Congress last December, before he took the Ways and Means gavel. The committee held a hearing in April, and then the discussion draft debuted in mid-July. The public and private comments, from liberals and conservatives, started to stream in after that, while negotiations on Capitol Hill continued.
“We’re trying to work through this in a bipartisan way,” Rep. Charles Boustany, chairman of the Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee, which oversees TANF, said in an interview. “Keep in mind this is a very fluid process. Losing Democratic support is real; it’s a possibility.”
“But that’s the whole point of a discussion draft,” he continued. “We start from positions and we try to flesh out where we end up without violating some of the core principles we laid out that we’re trying to adhere to.”
Democrats say that while they weren’t enamored with the initial draft—in particular, they want more funding for the program and for states to be required to spend more money on direct benefits—there were parts that they liked. But Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the ranking member of Boustany’s panel, indicated in an interview that more recent talks have seen the draft bill moving further from something they could support.
“The discussion that my staff had with the majority committee staff back in August suggested that, if anything, they were retreating a bit from that draft,” Doggett said. “Having come under criticism for seeking any bipartisan approach, instead of trying to work toward that bipartisan approach, there seemed to be a retreat…. Basically, the staff seem to be saying, ‘This is about the best we can do.’”
“I want to express a willingness to participate,” he added later. “But I’m not sure there is sufficient flexibility on the majority side, given the conditions within their caucus, to get us to a program that focuses on work and not just more welfare.”
The subcommittee has received “volumes” of feedback, among which has been conservatives stating their concerns about the work requirements, Boustany said. The priority for Republicans, he said, is to make TANF “a platform to get people off of welfare, off of assistance and into valuable substantive work opportunities, that lead to opportunity and moving up the ladder, rather than just stagnation.”
“That’s one of the things we’ve been looking at. That feedback has been very helpful to us,” the Louisiana Republican said. “We want to stick to a work-first program, but we also want to make sure that what’s being done in combination with the work and education requirement is substantive and actually leads to people spring-boarding off of the program without recidivism. That’s the key, and that’s what we’re trying to drill down to.”
The criticism of the discussion draft has come from some of the most prominent names in conservatism, at organizations like AEI, the Cato Institute, and Heritage.
“I think that giving in on the core work requirement is a step in the wrong direction,” said Robert Doar, a former commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration and now a fellow at AEI. “The core requirement is a fundamental key to the importance of TANF.… It made the program much stronger in helping people reach their full potential.”
Boustany emphasized that negotiations with Democrats were ongoing and nothing had been finalized yet. Doggett also reiterated his willingness to keep working toward something that both sides could support. The short-term government-spending bill that Congress will have to pass by the end of the month is expected to extend the program as-is into December, Doggett said, which would give lawmakers and staff more time to try to bridge these gaps.
Doggett personally handed Boustany a critique of the draft before they both left for the August recess, Boustany said. Boustany reviewed it on his plane ride home to Louisiana and talked it over with his staff over the next couple weeks, while keeping Ryan in the loop, before giving a counterproposal to Doggett and the Democrats in mid-August. The minority has not yet formally responded a month later, Boustany said.
“My feeling is that the changes that I advanced to get us to a point where we could see bipartisan sponsors and support for this were basically not given serious consideration,” Doggett said.
That is the paradox driving the pessimism around welfare reform. Conservatives have made their displeasure known, but if the bill moves to the right, Republicans risk losing the bipartisan support they’ll need to pass a bill in the Senate and earn Obama’s signature. Yet if the policies opposed by conservatives remain in the bill, it might be the Right that rallies against it, which also would also put its future in doubt.
“Republicans who, like us, are interested and informed about TANF, would have a hard time with the discussion draft as it stands, and I think adding things that the Democrats want would make it difficult to pass,” said Jason Turner, executive director of the Secretaries’ Innovation Group, which represents conservative state officials in the human service and workforce fields.
Given these recent developments, multiple sources—conservative and liberal—predicted that the prospects for the long-term reauthorization and overhaul of TANF that was originally envisioned just a few months ago are dimming.
“If I were forced to say exactly what might happen, I would bet nothing,” one source said. Or, as another put it: “There was some hope there, but I have to say, more recently, that hope is fading.”
Even Boustany, though he said, “You have to remain optimistic if you’re going to get anything done,” acknowledged there were no guarantees.
“At the end of the day, we could fail,” he said. “We will not fail for want of trying.”