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Pandora's welfare box: Do not open

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted March 1, 2004

The means of the federal government's welfare policies should serve the end: promote greater freedom.

Right now, the ante is being "upped" in a high-stakes battle between the Hamiltonian conservatives, (including key officials in the Bush Administration and think tanks such as Heritage), and a band of stouthearted Jeffersonian conservatives led by Bob Carleson, Senior Fellow at the Free Congress Foundation. Mr. Carleson served as a welfare policy advisor to Ronald Reagan for many years. Carleson played an instrumental role in shaping the 1996 welfare reform bill. Thanks in large part to Bob's three-decade long fight on behalf of real welfare reform, taxpayers have been able to save millions of dollars and many recipients have been able to find their way free of the welfare rolls and onto payrolls.

Bob was a key innovator in the successful strategy to end open-ended matching grants from the Federal government to the states. The grant system was unsuccessful because there was no incentive for states to reduce their rolls. Indeed, in good times when their own revenue collections were flush, the states had a perverse incentive to hike spending on welfare benefits. After all, the Feds would foot a good portion of the bill. The 1996 welfare reform bill ended that open-ended matching grant.

Bob Carleson likes to say, "Why not trust the people?" when it comes to welfare policy and that means letting the states - not the bureaucrats at HHS -- make the decisions over how welfare money is spent. It also means putting strict limits on how much money will come from the Federal Government in the first place.

That's why Bob believes that this Congress should simply extend the current welfare reform law as is for another five years. Its renewal is long overdue.

Conservatives may want the Congress to add this program or that idea to the bill, but open it up and the Democrats in the Senate stand ready to stuff it with their own favored, costly programs.

Some Republicans believe that the legislation can be stalled until next year in the hope the elections shake out well for conservatives. Certainly, I hope conservatives sweep next November but why take a chance to let something unexpected set back the progress we have made in welfare reform?

Surprisingly, even aides to conservative senators lack belief in Bob's simple proposition of trusting the people. If they want to see what we risk returning to, then they should look at the Medicaid system, which is built on the concept of open-ended, matching grants to the states. Not surprisingly, Medicaid costs are soaring. It's operated under the same principles that welfare did until the 1996 reform legislation was signed into law. There are probably more than a few Senate liberals who want a return to what they consider to be the "good old days." That's why it's imperative to reinstate the 1996 welfare reform bill in this congressional session, as written, on a straight up vote.

The program has been so successful that it's not always easy to find jobs for those able-bodied recipients who remain on the rolls. Bob does believe that everyone who is able should be doing work and therefore says the work requirement to the 1996 welfare reform bill should be kept intact. It does not need to be revised. Certainly, there is enough entry-level work to be done cleaning up neighborhoods and other community improvement activities for able-bodied welfare recipients.

Bob says HHS can make a real contribution on work requirements. Why not have HHS conduct an independent audit to rank the states from one to 50 on how well they have done in moving their recipients from the welfare rolls to a payroll?

Voters are strong supporters of work for welfare. If they know that their state is not doing a good job of putting able-bodied recipients to work - and learn that other states are - then they will have a very good reason to pressure their state's officials to get their act together. And if the state's officials fail to get people to work, then they should not be surprised to find themselves voted out of office.

Many conservatives would like to see a program promoting marriage to be added to the welfare reform bill. Bob warns that by adding this program, given the narrow numbers in the Senate, we risk letting the liberal senators engage in blackmail: If you conservatives want money for this, then you've got to give us what we want.

Why not handle marriage in a separate bill or even an amendment? It would be a wise political move. Given the current debate over marriage, Senate liberals would have to show just where they stand.

There are conservatives who argue that there is too much money allocated for welfare in light of the fact that welfare rolls have been reduced. However, the 1996 welfare reform bill's block grants have not been indexed for inflation so the allocations have in effect been shrinking anyway. Furthermore, the states have the ability to use the leftover money for whatever they deem necessary.

As this battle heats up in the coming weeks, plenty of pressure will be placed on Congress to seek what one group or the other considers perfection at the expense of a very good law. That perfection is likely to come with a very big price tag given the narrow Republican margin in the Senate and the intense desire of Senate liberals to use the welfare reform bill to their own ends. We have seen how Ted Kennedy and company made education reform a budget buster and, believe me, he and his liberal colleagues want to do the same to this bill if given the chance.

Why risk the unknown? We know the 1996 welfare reform bill has been working. We know it puts power back in the hands of the states and has helped many people leave the welfare rolls to find independence and the opportunity to advance in life. We have a good bill that's doing the job and which has saved taxpayers millions of dollars. It deserves to be renewed as is in this session. Those Senate Democrats who vote "no" will have an interesting time trying to duck questions as to why they opposed a bill that President Clinton himself signed into law.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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