WASHINGTON — It took less than a month for the Obama administration’s move in July to grant states more flexibility in handling their welfare programs to shift from low-profile policy proposal to hot-button political issue that quickly permeated the presidential race.
Now, with Congress set to return to session on Monday, it’s even more likely that the once-bipartisan and relatively uncontroversial proposal could be scuttled by opponents on Capitol Hill — with an assist from Republican governors around the country.
Armed with a Government Accountability Office finding released this past week that found the Obama administration’s waiver proposal should be subjected to Congressional review, Republicans sound as committed as ever to blocking the plan that they contend “guts” welfare’s work requirements.
Although the finding did not say waivers must be approved by Congress, many opponents of the administration’s plans saw the finding as vindication of their calls for oversight, and as a potential path toward a vote on the proposal.
“Despite the Obama administration’s attempts to unilaterally undo welfare work requirements, this analysis is unequivocal that any changes must be submitted to Congress,” said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a top Republican opponent of the waiver proposal who serves as the ranking minority member on the Senate Finance Committee. “Circumventing Congress, as this White House has done, is a flagrant abuse of our system of checks and balances and an insult to American taxpayers.”
Hatch’s House counterpart, Michigan Rep. and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, echoed the sentiment.
“Despite (President Barack Obama’s) latest attempt at an end-run around Congress, this GAO report clearly states that the administration must submit this rule to Congress for review before it can take effect,” Camp said. “Work requirements were the centerpiece of welfare reform, and we cannot allow that progress to be undone.”
The waiver proposal, when it was announced in July, was first seen as a relatively noncontroversial measure to let states experiment with welfare programs, flexibility sought for years by state lawmakers of both parties. Changes in the program, formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, could range from programmatic tweaks to altering reporting requirements.
But Republicans pounced on the proposal, calling the move a backdoor attempt to eviscerate work requirements that were a key part of the Clinton administration’s welfare reform law. Some of the changes, such as extending the 12-week restriction on job searches, were seen by some as a move to relax the so-called “workfare” requirements of the 1990s-era reform.
The U.S. Department of Human Services and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius looked to beat back this argument. The original memo to states explicitly said the department would “only consider approving waivers relating to work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means to meeting the work goals of TANF.” Sebelius, meanwhile, penned a letter to congressional Republicans saying “no policy which … waters down work requirements will be considered or approved.”
But that did little to quiet critics. Both Hatch and Camp introduced legislation to block the waivers, and the line of attack quickly became a key part of the presidential campaign. Republican candidate Mitt Romney began airing ads saying the Obama administration’s proposal would do away with welfare-to-work requirements, a charge since labeled false or misleading by independent analysts and fact-checkers.
Still, the controversy was enough to tamp down the appetite for waivers from a number of Republican governors as well, some of whom had previously supported the flexibility. That raises the prospect that the waivers themselves, which many saw as a way to try out needed welfare improvements in some states, could fall victim to partisanship.
A number of states that once supported waivers have either backed away from the idea or have since criticized the Obama administration for proposing it. Nevada, for example, once supported waivers, but in July declined to comment on the issue and refused to release a copy of its letter to HHS supporting the move.
The Romney campaign in August released letters opposing the waivers from nine Republican governors, including one from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, whose state had originally written to federal officials in support of them. The Romney campaign also released critical letters from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
The idea of increased welfare flexibility for states once had wide, high-profile bipartisan backing. In 2005, 29 Republican governors, including Romney, wrote a letter to U.S. senators supporting such flexibility. The George W. Bush White House also supported TANF waivers, as then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said in congressional testimony in 2003 and the administration explained in a 2002 policy brief.
That bipartisan past hasn’t stopped Republican critics, though, and thanks to the GAO finding, their criticism is likely to continue, both on Capitol Hill and in states around the country. Staffers for Hatch and Camp say they haven’t yet decided how to proceed, but are working on a response and a plan of action for when Congress resumes work between now and the November election.