03 August 2012

On Welfare Rules, Showing Flexibility

In May 2005, the Republican Governors Association wrote to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) to support a bill giving state governments more flexibility in instituting the 1996 “welfare reform” law. They highlighted the value of “State flexibility”:

The Senate bill provides states with the flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations. Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit, and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work.
The second signature on that letter came from Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Others on the letter included Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and other names still prominent on the American right.

That bill didn’t become law, but states continued to push for more autonomy without cuts in funding, as always. In August 2011 Utah asked the Department of Health and Human Services for “flexibility” and Nevada suggested “judicious use of waivers” on requirements of the original law. Both states had Republican governors.

The department responded this month by offering such waivers—though less flexibility than the Republican governors sought in 2005. The department stated that any deviations from the original requirements must be “intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals.” Assistant Secretary George Sheldon, recipient of the 2011 letters, stated:
Waivers that weaken or undercut welfare reform will not be approved. Waivers that seek to avoid time limits or other federal restrictions on when assistance may be provided will not be approved.
But of course that letter came from the administration of President Barack Obama, and a significant part of the Republican Party suffers from OIP Derangement Syndrome, meaning that they can’t be happy with anything that administration does.

So Romney spoke of “President Obama’s efforts to gut welfare reform.” Huckabee claimed the administration was changing rules “to make people dependent upon the government that they want to keep in power.”

And the governors weren’t the only Republican officials to reverse themselves. Back in 2005, Rep. Joe Camp (R-MI) co-sponsored a bill like the one those Republican governors supported. But in 2012, Camp called the waivers “a brazen and unwarranted unraveling of welfare reform.” In 2003, when he headed HHS, Tommy Thompson asked Congress to authorize “some key policy changes to increase State flexibility.” This month Thompson falsely claimed that the Obama administration planned to “waive the work requirement.”

I never take arguments for “states’ rights” very seriously. One of the champions of that idea in American politics, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, strongly supported increased federal power when he was in the executive branch. Nearly every other advocate of the idea was happy to use federal power to institute the policies that they liked instead of deferring to state governments. But the examples of hypocrisy in this post have the added gloss of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

Both sides of this issue showed great flexibility, but in different ways. The Obama administration showed flexibility in its willingness to work with state governments and Republican office-holders. Republicans like Romney and Huckabee showed flexibility in their willingness to twist their own positions around completely in order to criticize the President.

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