POLITICS
03/13/2013 05:41 pm ET | Updated Mar 14, 2013

Welfare Work Requirement Bill Passes House To Ban Obama Option

WASHINGTON -- A day after Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said Republicans wouldn't "refight the past," House Republicans took up a bill resurrecting the 2012 campaign charge that President Barack Obama coddles poor people by giving them free welfare.

The bill, which is similar to a measure that the House adopted last year before it died in the Senate, passed the lower chamber on Wednesday by a vote of 246 to 181.

The legislation would forbid the Obama administration to grant states waivers from work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, often called welfare. Congress required that states make sure a certain percentage of enrollees participate in "work activities" when it enacted the 1996 welfare reform, which gave states more power to run their own programs within federal guidelines.

"Generally the [1996] reforms offer states new flexibility in designing welfare programs. However, in exchange for that flexibility, strong new federal work requirements were put in place," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said Wednesday. "However, the current administration ... has decided it does have the authority to waive these work requirements."

Last July, in response to requests from governors -- including Republican ones -- the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it would consider suspending certain requirements for states that implemented "demonstration projects" that would help more welfare beneficiaries find jobs. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the announcement effectively "gutted" the work requirements in the 1996 law.

Then-GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, took up the charge, running ads that falsely claimed the Obama administration would distribute welfare checks without requiring recipients to look for work. The administration maintained that it would only consider waivers for states that could show their programs would lead to more people getting jobs.

Although the law gives the Department of Health and Human Services broad authority to waive certain requirements for experimental projects, Republicans also insist the administration overstepped its authority in offering the waivers. The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service looked into the claim and came to different conclusions: The GAO backed the Republican criticism; the Congressional Research Service did not.

Another problem with the GOP attack was that no waivers had actually been issued.

To this day, none have. The Obama administration said Tuesday that even though both red and blue states had called for waivers, the political backlash might have made them shy.

"Ultimately, no States formally applied for State waivers, deterred in part by inaccurate claims about what the policy involves; therefore, the limiting provision would have no practical effect on any pending application," the administration said in a statement.

The administration said it disapproved of the House bill's ban on waivers, but not its underlying reauthorization of the $16 billion welfare program. The assistance supports roughly 4 million Americans per year, down from 14 million at the time of the welfare reform.

"Today's bill takes a sensible, bipartisan piece of legislation and tacks on a partisan political ploy that was used in the last Congress to try to embarrass President Obama," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). "Instead of bringing a simple, clean extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the Republican majority is continuing a political attack from the last election. And like many of the other political attacks lobbed against President Obama in that campaign, this attack is simply untrue and destined for failure."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, one of the Republicans who sought flexibility from the federal government last year, wouldn't go along with the attacks back then, though he said he'd prefer it if the flexibility came from Congress and not the executive branch. His administration explained part of the problem with making sure welfare enrollees were working or in "work-related activities" in a July 2011 letter.

"The lack of focus on outcomes makes the program less about the need to help parents find and retain work and more about the need to assure that parents are active in prescribed activities," the Utah letter said. "Any of the data reported that is an actual positive outcome for a customer may matter to the State but it does not relate to how the data is reported and framed to Congress."

Herbert told HuffPost last year after the election that his administration was still considering an application for a waiver.

The welfare legislation that passed on Wednesday now heads to the Senate, where the waiver ban will be unpopular with the Democratic majority. A bipartisan "continuing resolution" pending in the upper chamber would reauthorize the assistance without adding restrictions.

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