Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of unilaterally gutting welfare reform after the Department of Health and Human Services quietly notified states that they may seek a waiver for the program's strict work requirements.
HHS made the announcement in a policy memo Thursday, news that slipped well below the radar amid a raucous day on the presidential campaign trail. But a few prominent GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill picked up on the change, and accused the administration of overhauling one of the most important bipartisan agreements of the past several decades.
"President Obama just tore up a basic foundation of the welfare contract" Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said in a statement. He also called the move a "blatant violation of the law."
Mitt Romney on Friday spoke up on the change, saying: "President Obama now wants to strip the established work requirements from welfare." He said "the linkage of work and welfare is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life."
How exactly the HHS change will play out is unclear. In Thursday's policy directive, the department said the states may seek a waiver from the work component of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, in order to "test alternative and innovative strategies, policies and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
HHS stressed that any alternative should still aim to get welfare recipients into gainful employment. Any plan that "appears substantially likely to reduce access to assistance or employment for needy families," will not be approved, the memo said.
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But HHS is suddenly allowing for more flexibility in a program known -- and in many circles, lauded -- for its rigid framework. Currently, states have to have 50 percent of their caseload meet certain work participation requirements, though there are ways around that as many states fall short.
The latest department directive suggested alternative plans could "combine learning and work" to fulfill the work requirement, or let "vocational educational training or job search /readiness programs" count as well.
The administration defended the move in a blog on the HHS website. George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, said states will be held "accountable" for their alternative plans. He pitched the changes as a response to states burdened by current rules and guidelines.
"The new steps we have taken will give states more flexibility in how they operate the Temporary Assistance to Need Families program. And the steps we have taken were specifically requested by states led by officials from both parties," he wrote. "When the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program was established as part of welfare reform in the 1990s, it was intended to give states flexibility to design effective programs to help parents move from welfare to work. Today, however, Federal rules dictate mind-numbing details about how to run a welfare-to-work program. Most States and experts agree that these aren't helpful."
The hard-fought welfare reform agreement in 1996 was struck between the Bill Clinton administration and a Republican-led Congress. It is still considered a signature legislative achievement from that period.
The number of people on TANF has decreased dramatically since 1997, but roughly 4 million people are still enrolled according to federal figures. The change comes in the middle of a competitive election fight between Obama and Romney.
Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, have written to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for a more detailed explanation of the change and her authority for making it. Both expressed concern that the change would strip the crux of the 1996 welfare reform deal.
"This ends welfare reform as we know it," Camp said in a statement.
"I'm disappointed that after years of sitting on their hands and failing to propose any significant improvements to the TANF programs, the Obama Administration is once again over-stepping their authority and attempting to circumvent Congress through an unprecedented bypass of the legislative process," Hatch said.