In a period of time when the Democrats appeared as if they had a lock on Congress, the late Robert B. Carleson approached me: Would I agree to hire him as a Free Congress Foundation Adjunct Scholar to work on welfare reform if Richard M. Scaife would fund it. Bob Carleson had extraordinary credentials. He had been the architect of Governor Ronald Reagan's welfare reform in California. Reagan managed significantly to cut welfare rolls while increasing support for those who really needed help. It was Carleson's formula which finally persuaded sufficient Democrats in the California General Assembly to back the program that it moved forward.
Casper N. Weinberger was then working for the Nixon Administration. He knew of Carleson's abilities. They had worked together in California. So Weinberger, then known as "Cap the Knife," made Carleson Commissioner of Welfare. Carleson began welfare reform in the Nixon Administration but Nixon was upended after Watergate. Less than a decade later Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Bob Carleson worked inside the Reagan Administration, both at Health and Human Services and the White House, to craft President Reagan's welfare reform. The Congress was not kind to Reagan's welfare approach. But Dick Scaife was sympathetic and thus began the long relationship between Carleson and the Free Congress Foundation.
Carleson kept plugging away. He held private meetings with the Senate Finance Committee to educate Senators as to how the system really worked. Likewise, he briefed moderate Democrats and most Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee. They all told Bob to forget it. For the most part they were resigned to ever increasing welfare rolls, bringing ever increasing welfare costs.
Then came the unforeseeable earthquake. Republicans took over both Houses of Congress. Even the House went strongly Republican. In the first Congress of the Clinton Administration Republicans had formed a working group on welfare, chaired by Representative, now Senator, James Talent (R-MO). Carleson worked feverishly with that group to advocate the correct approach to welfare reform - namely, giving block grants to the states for AFDC and giving them wide latitude in writing their own regulations. Carleson worked extremely hard to counter those conservatives and Republicans who wanted to write national regulations. Carleson understood that in an unsympathetic Administration rules would be promulgated which would destroy any effective approach to welfare reform. Some in the conservative movement labeled this a sell-out and fought Bob both in private and even in public. He held his ground and we were pleased to back him up.
In the second Congress of the Clinton Administration, when the Republicans won those significant majorities, Carleson saw the chance for real reform. The HHS Secretary was former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, who had put himself on the map by initiating welfare reform in Wisconsin along the lines that Carleson had been advocating. So with Bob Carleson's guidance, the first all-Republican Congress since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President enacted welfare reform. President William J. Clinton had promised to end "welfare as we know it" but nevertheless heard the cries of the most liberal Democratic Senators, especially Senator Edward M. Kennedy, so he vetoed the bill. The Republican Congress enacted the measure again and again Clinton vetoed. At that point there were demands even in Republican circles to give up. Carleson said never. He advised Members on how to revise the bill slightly and it was sent to that President a third time. At that point Presidential advisor Dick Morris told Clinton that if he did not sign the bill, Senator Robert J. Dole could have a potential lethal issue against Clinton in the 1996 campaign. Clinton reluctantly signed the bill, promising to repeal parts of it he were re-elected. He did win the election but Republicans kept control of the Congress so he was not able to repeal the measure. Meanwhile, because it was the states and not Washington which were able to issue many of the regulations, welfare rolls began immediately to drop.
Today there are 57% fewer clients on welfare than there were when the bill became law.
All of this comes to mind because the Bush Administration has now stepped in with some course-correcting regulations which Carleson for the most part supported. Carleson died unexpectedly following surgery in April. Some time ago he had formed his own organization and did his more recent welfare reform work from that platform. All this time he never sought the spotlight. He was quick to give others credit for what he did. Make no mistake about it, the final regulations on welfare reform issued by the Bush Administration last week never would have come about but for the guidance and hard work of Bob Carleson.
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, a former Governor of Utah, says the new regulations amount to re-booting the program. It seems that in some states things had gotten mighty lax. Rest was counted as work. Phony community service also was counted as work. Not any more. The rules have been tightened to the point that states will have to see to it that welfare recipients find real work in order to receive benefits. This is the logical intervention to see to it that the intent of Congress is implemented.
There is an air of excitement at HHS over the new beginning of the welfare process. If only Bob Carleson could have lived to have seen the last chapter of his long journey.