Guy Benson

We briefly covered this issue last week, but it's worth circling back and exploring further. President Obama's unilateral 'gutting' of the 1996 welfare reform legislation last week is both morally abhorrent and in violation of the law's plain text.  Let's recall why President Clinton decided to sign this controversial bill into law in the mid-90s after a grueling Congressional battle:
 


 

"A long time ago, I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family -- trapping generation after generation in dependency, and hurting the very people it was designed to help.  Today we have a historic opportunity to help make welfare what it was meant to be: A second chance, not a way of life....I have worked with members of both parties in Congress to achieve a national welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of the land."


That hard-fought, groundbreaking bipartisan compromise, signed by President Clinton, is no longer the "law of the land."  With a stroke of a pen, President Obama extracted its heart.  The Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, a leading scholar on poverty and an intellectual godfather of welfare reform, explains:
 

The Obama directive bludgeons the letter and intent of the actual reform legislation...In the past, state bureaucrats have attempted to define activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as “work.” 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 new welfare dictate issued by the Obama Administration clearly guts the law.


Obama accomplishes this end by trampling on the law's unambiguous provisions:
 

Section 1115 states that “the Secretary may waive compliance with any of the requirements” of specified parts of various laws. But this is not an open-ended authority: Any provision of law that can be waived under section 1115 must be listed in section 1115 itself. The work provisions of the TANF program are contained in section 407 (entitled, appropriately, “mandatory work requirements”). Critically, this section, as well as most other TANF requirements, are deliberately not listed in section 1115; they are not waiveable. In establishing TANF, Congress deliberately exempted or shielded nearly all of the TANF program from the section 1115 waiver authority. They did not want the law to be rewritten at the whim of Health and Human Services (HHS) bureaucrats. Of the roughly 35 sections of the TANF law, only one is listed as waiveable under section 1115. This is section 402.


In other words, Congress explicitly protected the work requirement section of the law (it's main pillar) from future attempts at arbitrary executive discretion.  The Obama administration moved forward with its re-writing of the rules anyway.  They claim it's all about "flexibility for states."  Indeed. The entire purpose of instituting tough federal guidelines for federal welfare programs was to diminish states' flexibility to define "work" down to the point of being meaningless.  If California -- already home to roughly one-third of all welfare recipients in America -- is afforded huge new "flexibility" to water down work requirements beyond recognition, the welfare rolls will swell.  As Rector points out, not only was the 1996 reform law a rare triumph of Washington cooperation, it has been an undeniable success as a matter of policy outcomes:
 

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.


Those "rigorous new federal work requirements" entailed demanding that all able-bodied adults seeking to receive a welfare check must first prove that they are either working, or actively seeking work. Those concepts were defined fairly stringently, by design.  They're now gone. As we've seen on the Defense of Marriage Act, the de facto DREAM Act, and now welfare reform, this president is brazenly selecting which laws he will enforce, and which ones he will ignore.  This is lawlessness.  Though it will likely be rectified in the courts eventually, why is Obama making this decision now?  Let's recognize that there's serious risk involved here: In the home stretch of an election season, Obama is uprooting an immensely popular, common sense, Clinton-era law that upholds the value and dignity of work.  I suspect Obama made this calculation for two reasons:

(1) He thinks it's an ideological and electoral win/win: The president gets to increase the dependent class in America, a long-term Left-wing project that he embraces, and he (in his mind) boosts his re-election prospects.  How would this work?  Hugh Hewitt's radio producer Duane Patterson also believes this move greases the skids for liberal states to move perhaps tens of thousands of citizens onto welfare, thus pushing many of them into the Bureau of Labor Statistics' "stopped looking for work" category.  Though these drop-outs would inflate the so-called "U6" unemployment figure, they would help drive down the "U3" rate (currently 8.2 percent), which is the number most associated with unemployment.  This would allow Obama to point at a potential small drop in the U3 figure to make the case that we're "moving in the right direction" on jobs.  Granted, that's a pretty Machiavellian theory, but I'm a strong believer that every single action Obama takes these days is completely political.  The question that must always be asked is, "how does Barack Obama benefit from this?"  Patterson's explanation answers that question plausibly in my view.

(2) He believes the Romney campaign and Republicans generally will be gun shy about making this a major campaign issue.  Why?  Because of the lamentable racial subtext of welfare reform.  If the GOP starts landing blows on this, the race card will be played.  You do the math. 

In either case, Romney cannot let Obama off the hook here.  The president is thumbing his nose at a major bipartisan accomplishment (something he claims to crave), violating the law's clear legislative language (as confirmed by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service), and making it much easier for people to collect government checks.  Americans will not stand for this, and they'll be even more put off my racial nastiness if and when Democrats go there.  I believe the Romney campaign can use Obama's "fairness" fixation against him on this issue.  How is it fair for one president to unilaterally gut a duly-passed law, signed by one of his predecessors (who happens to be a member of his own party)?  How is it fair for a president to simply ignore the nation's laws -- in part or in toto -- that he swore to uphold?  And what precedent does that set?  Finally, how is it fair to unravel a successful anti-poverty program by nakedly disincentivizing work and encouraging dependency?  And how is it fair for an able-bodied adult to pocket taxpayer-funded welfare checks if he or she isn't being held to reasonable, previously-agreed-upon work standards?  Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers seems to understand how vulnerable Obama may be on this front:
 


Take this case to the public, Governor Romney.  It's a winning argument, especially when coupled with Obama's insulting "you didn't build that" slam on individual achievement and personal industry.


UPDATE - Read National Review's excellent house editorial on this subject.


Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography