Why The Welfare Reform Bill Is Falling Apart

Conservative criticism of the GOP-led effort is scaring away Democrats, setting up partisan fight over the federal safety net.

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan made welfare reform a priority this Congress.
Bloomberg AFP/Getty
Sept. 20, 2015, 8 p.m.

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.”

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