Explainer: Did Obama 'Gut' Welfare Reform?

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A still from "Right Choice," a new attack ad from the Romney campaign charging Barack Obama with "gutting" welfare reform.

In speeches, on television ads, and through the mouths of surrogates on campaign-hosted conference calls, Mitt Romney spent Tuesday pretty much grossly mischaracterizing the changes that the Obama administration has made to the federal welfare program.

At issue is a July 12th memo from Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius sent a letter to states saying that the department would offer waivers to states that wanted to manage welfare differently. If states had new proposals for how to run their programs, and could “commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance,” without any “policy which undercuts that goal or waters down work requirements,” then they would be eligible for said waiver.

In the hands of Republican legislators and the Romney campaign, this mild allowance – replete with hurdles and benchmarks, and promising zero change for any state that prefers the status quo – amounts to a savage attack on the bipartisan welfare reform of 1996.

It’s totally bogus to charge President Obama with “gutting” welfare work requirements. Here are all the reasons why:

1. In what universe is this 'gutting'?

To reiterate: nothing will change for any state that doesn’t seek change. For the states that would like a waiver, they have to put forward a plan to replace the current federal requirements; per the communications from HHS, these plans must be detailed and move more people from welfare to work. If they don’t, HHS can rescind the waivers.

In the hands of the Romney campaign, this translates into the charge that Obama has “disagreed with requiring welfare recipients to work,” as Texas Republican Senate candidate Ted Cruz said on a conference call Tuesday morning.

“I don’t think sacrificing the welfare of the most vulnerable in society for political purposes, which is what President Obama and his administration are doing is right or makes any sense at all," Cruz continued.

Cruz shouldn’t have to worry about it making sense, though, because it’s simply not happening. That Obama doesn’t think welfare recipients should have to work is an invention of Cruz’s imagination, and he’s free to dispel this flawed notion whenever he’d like.

2. Utah asked for a waiver in order to put forth stricter work requirements

Utah, which has a Republican governor, sent a letter to HHS on July 24, 2011, suggesting ways the state’s Department of Workforce Services “could work better to help achieve employment as an outcome” of welfare. One of their recommendations? “Allow waivers where the measurement of employment is the reportable data to the federal government instead of reporting hours of participation.”

These are the sorts of requests that led HHS to grant waivers. In some cases, like Utah and also Nevada, it was states with Republican leadership asking for the waivers.

Utah plainly suggests that employment should be the measure of success of the state’s welfare program, not the amount of time spent filling out paperwork or participating in the system without results.

“In some areas it could be perceived to be a little more strict,” than the existing federal requirements, said Governor Herbert's Deputy Chief of Staff Ally Isom of the kind of welfare structure that Utah would ask for a waiver to put in place. “Rather than bureaucracy and dependence we’re trying to promote self-reliance and employment.”

That sounds like something Republicans would get behind. So how does Mitt Romney’s campaign translate this, courtesy of Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan?

“[Waivers are] an affront not only to those working toward self-reliance, but also to the middle-class Americans who are working harder for less in the Obama economy,” Jordan said in a statement.

It’s as if the Romney campaign hasn’t read the communications from HHS, or talked to any of the states seeking waivers. Otherwise they’d probably like the waiver program. So they’re either misinformed, or they’re purposely deceiving voters and making them think President Obama has done something he didn’t do. Now why on earth would they do the latter if not for the same kind of "political purposes" Ted Cruz charged the Obama administration of having?

3. Romney used to like welfare waivers

Much like a mandate to purchase health insurance, Mitt Romney hates the waivers in 2012 that he fought for while Governor of Massachusetts.

In a 2005 letter to Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Republican Govenrors Association wrote about the need of “empowering states to seek new and innovative solutions to help welfare recipients achieve independence.”

Mitt Romney was among the 29 Republican governors who put their signature on a document arguing that “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.” Tim Pawlenty, Jeb Bush, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Mitch Daniels were also among the signatories.

So where’s the Romney campaign’s beef? The complaints seem manufactured, and every time that’s pointed out to the campaign, they manage to invent another half-baked issue with the waivers.

On the same conference call Tuesday morning, Romney’s Deputy Policy Director Jonathan Burks claimed that Utah Governor Gary Herbert had sent a letter to HHS specifying, “While they were seeking increased flexibility in how they administer their program, they were not seeking waiver of the core work requirement.”

This is a mischaracterization of what Herbert wrote. “Utah would only support waiver authority where work and self-sufficiency were the basis for the program waiver,” is how the letter read, and that’s not the same thing as what Burks said.

Kathleen Sebelius echoed Governor Herbert in a July 18 letter to Michigan Congressman Dave Camp, a Republican who’s introduced legislation in the House to block the waivers. “No plan that undercuts the goal of moving people from welfare to work will be considered or approved,” she writes.

If the Romney campaign thinks the Obama administration is being disingenuous about how it would consider waiver applications, they have every right to say so and make the argument that HHS would grant waivers to states with bad or incomplete plans. But that’s not what the Romney campaign is saying; instead they have completely distorted the debate to be about gutting welfare work requirements at the command of a President who doesn’t believe people on welfare should have to work.

That’s not what’s going on at all. But this disingenuous volley will likely go on through November.