Romney vs. Obama and Clinton on welfare reform

Mitt Romney???s presidential campaign has begun running an ad called ???The Rise and Fall of Welfare Reform,??? criticizing President Obama for gutting the work requirements of the 1996 welfare reform bill.  The ad points out that this puts Obama at odds with former President Bill Clinton, who signed the reforms in question:

This prompted a response from Bill Clinton, who said Romney???s claims were ???not true.???  As related by Yahoo News:

Clinton said the welfare reform law he signed emerged after “years of experiments at the state level” and noted that he had granted waivers to 44 states that wanted to implement “welfare to work strategies” before the 1996 welfare reforms had passed.

Clinton suggested Obama was simply being as flexible as he was, pointing out that the recent DHS directive came at the request of Republican governors in Utah and Nevada.

“The (Obama) administration has taken important steps to ensure that the work requirement is retained and that waivers will be granted only if a state can demonstrate that more people will be moved into work under its new approach,” Clinton said in his statement. “The welfare time limits, another important feature of the 1996 act, will not be waived.”

Clinton, who has a long and tortured relationship with the truth, is selectively editing the welfare reform bill he signed to make this argument.  As Robert Rector and Kiki Bradley of the Heritage Foundation point out, the requirements trashed by the Obama Administration were not the ???flexible??? part of the law ??? quite the contrary:

The welfare reform law is often characterized as simply giving state governments more flexibility in operating welfare programs. This is a serious misunderstanding. While new law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996) did grants states more flexibility in some respects, the core of the act was the creation of rigorous new federal work standards that state governments were required to implement.

The welfare reform law was very successful. In the four decades prior to welfare reform, the welfare caseload never experienced a significant decline. But, in the four years after welfare reform, the caseload dropped by nearly half. Employment surged and child poverty among affected groups plummeted. The driving force behind these improvements was the rigorous new federal work requirements contained in the TANF law.

That???s why the work requirements were expressly not included among the areas of the law that the Health and Human Services Secretary can issue waivers to, as clearly specified in section 1115 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.  As the Heritage report points out, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service verified in 2001 that no waivers were possible for the work requirements of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.  If Congress had wanted to make such waivers possible in 1996, they could have given HHS the authority to issue them.  But they didn???t.

This is precisely what Bill Clinton used to mean when he boasted of ???ending welfare as we know it.???  The old program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, literally ended.  It was replaced by a new program, TANF.  The work requirements are absolutely integral to this new program.  They are part of its basic rationale.

Since we???re all accustomed to finely parsing Bill Clinton???s words, including his two-letter verbs, you might be wondering what he means when he claims Obama???s extra-Constitutionally rewritten TANF program would grant waivers ???only if a state can demonstrate that more people will be moved into work under its new approach.???  The increasingly powerful Secretary of Health and Human Services ??? already set to become one of the mightiest bureaucrats on Earth, thanks to ObamaCare ??? would have discretion to grant these waivers, and supposedly would insist on states proving that they can put more people to work by dispensing with the work requirements for welfare, replacing it with some alternative approach that they believe would be more effective.

That???s exactly the kind of bureaucratic black hole that swallows effective reforms, which somehow vanish in a haze of ???discretion??? and highly subjective judgments.  ???In the past, state bureaucrats have attempted to define activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as ???work,?????? Rector and Bradley remind us.  ???These dodges were blocked by the federal work standards. Now that the Obama Administration has abolished those standards, we can expect ???work??? in the TANF program to mean anything but work.???

The quibbles about Romney???s ad boil down to conflicting assertions about what might happen, based on the discretion of the federal bureaucracy, and the requests for waivers by state governments.  Romney is no more ???untruthful??? to assume the worst about the exercise of such discretion than Clinton and Obama are to assume the best.  What matters is that a highly effective requirement, passed with bipartisan support after due deliberation in Congress, is being clipped from one of the most successful government reforms of our lifetime, and replaced with promises of wisdom and flexibility, written in pencil.