Robert Rector On What Obama Did To Destroy Welfare Reform This Week
WJBC: …efforts to gut this tax cut for the hardest-pressed working people have been blocked. This legislation deserves the EITC and its benefits for working families. Now, we must increase the minimum wage, which also will benefit millions of working people with families, and help them to offset the impact of some of the nutritional cuts in this bill. Through these efforts, we all have to recognize, as I said in 1992, the best anti-poverty program is still a job. I want to congratulate the members of Congress from both parties who worked together on this welfare reform legislation. I want to challenge them to put politics aside and continue to work together to meet our other challenges, and to correct the problems that are still there with this legislation. I am convinced that it does present an historic opportunity to finish the work of ending welfare as we know it, and that is why I’ve decided to sign in.
GB: President Bill Clinton, July 31st, 1996, in his statement announcing in the West Wing, I think in the press briefing room, why he was going to sign the monumental welfare reform that is one of the, really, landmark signature accomplishments of his presidency, and of the Republican Congress after they took back control of the House in 1994. It is the Hugh Hewitt Show on this Friday. Happy Friday. I’m Guy Benson with Mary Katharine Ham sitting in for Hugh this week who is on vacation. The reason that we played the clip of President Clinton from 1996 is because welfare reform, and the bill he ultimately did sign into law, is back in the news today. Why? Would you be surprised to know that President Obama is taking unilateral action to gut it?
GB: I know.
MKH: This model of bipartisanship and effectiveness in Congress? He loves that kind of thing.
GB: Yeah, it’s so unlike him to just bypass Congress and do stuff that he wants to further a left wing agenda.
MKH: I know.
GB: And if you think we’re exaggerating, we’re not. And to help us make that care, we’re joined by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who’s a senior research fellow there. He’s an expert on poverty issue, poverty policy, and is considered by many to be the intellectual godfather of the very welfare reform law that President Clinton spoke about in the clip we just heard. Robert, it’s great to have you here.
RR: Well, thank you for having me on your show.
GB: Well, okay, tell us about, very quickly, the nutshell version of the reform that was signed by the president in 1996. What did it accomplish? What did it change?
RR: The reform took one of the welfare programs called Aid To Family With Dependent Children, did away with it, and replaced it with a new program which we called Temporary Assistance To Needy Families. The core of that program was a requirement to work. We said that able-bodied adults in that program should work, or at lease prepare for work, or search for a job as a condition for getting aid, and we putt a very strong emphasis on reducing dependents and case loads. This act is often characterized as just letting the states do what they want to, but in fact, the act was successful, because for the first time in the history of the welfare system, we required that state governments put people to work. As a result of that, the case load in this program, which had not declined since, really, World War II, dropped 50% over a few years. Employment surged, and the poverty rate, for example, of black children dropped at a historical rate, reaching unprecedented lows right as the reform was passed and put into effect. The core of it, again, was to say this, we’re not just going to hand checks out here. We’re going to expect people to take a job, or at least prepare for getting in the labor force.
GB: Right, and there were some, Robert, there were some requirements there, and they were relatively rigid. What counted as work?
RR: What counted as work would be things, it’s a work activity. It’s things like community service work, formal and actual employment, supervised job search is a thing that we count. But mostly, we also basically said you have to count this honestly. Before this system, we had state governments that would do things like have somebody go do three hours of job search a month, and they would say a-ha, see, they’re in work activities, that kind of game to essentially pretend to do something when you’re really doing nothing. And as soon as we took those games out of the system, the case load fell dramatically.
MKH: Now what action did the President take this week that changes that?
RR: He abolished the work requirements. And that’s pretty simple, isn’t it? They’re gone.
MKH: There you go.
RR: And they’re absolutely gone. It’s about 15 pages of text in the law, it’s gone. They said these are no longer valid. We are going to invoke something called a super waiver, and basically wipe them out. And now we’re going to get together with the state governments and designs a completely new system. Now when they were caught at this, they said oh, no, no, no, that’s not what we’re doing. That’s exactly what they’re doing. They wiped, they said these requirements are no longer valid. They no longer have the force of law. We are going to create a blank slate and redesign this system as we wish to. And they used a very dodgy legal trick in order to get away with this. They said, you know, someone was saying to me well, these are very sharp lawyers. And I said yeah, our sharp lawyer is someone whose job is to convince you that two plus two equals thirty-seven, and make it convincing, you know? And they had no legal right to do this. They’re specifically prohibited from doing this in the law, and they don’t care, because they know they are superior to the law. They are world-class actors who really can’t be constrained by little things like legislation.
MKH: Well yeah, creating the law required bipartisan consensus and hard work and negotiation…
MKH: And passing a bill and having it signed in 1996. But suddenly, eliminating all those laws, you can just do by yourself.
RR: You can do it with the stroke of a pen. The reality is if you knew the details of this, how you run a work program and how you counted how rigorous it will be is subject to a lot of debate, which is very boring, but actually very important in terms of what happens with it. And this was very heavily debated in 1996. The left wanted very lenient systems, things that where you could count going to Weight Watchers as work, doing a hula class as work, all kinds of nonsense like that, doing one hour of stuff a week, and that gets counted as successful participation. And they lost most of those battles. They didn’t lose them all, but they lost most of them. They were very unhappy about it. The whole liberal wing of the Democratic Party voted against this. All of the entire, all of Clinton’s cabinet opposed it and said don’t sign it because it’s too conservative. But he signed it, it went into law, and then when it was reauthorized again back in 2006, they came at it again, and they said we really want these work standards to be much looser. We don’t want to make these people, we certainly don’t want to take their money away if they fail to do what they’re asked to do, and things like that. And they lost again. And so having lost twice in a row on the legislation, they just said well, the heck with this, we’ll change the game.
MKH: Well, speaking of sharp lawyers, is there a legal path that we can take to reinstate? Or is it just have at it?
RR: I think it’s pretty much just have at it. I mean, you could take this to court, and they would almost certainly, I think, lose on it. But that would be…
GB: They being the administration?
GB: They being the administration would lose?
RR: No, they being, I mean, they being a conservative group, I’m sorry, could take this, and the administration would probably lose, but that would cost you a fortune. I think the reality is that the Republicans in the House, when this bill comes back up to be reauthorized and have money put into it, which will occur pretty soon here, they’re going to have to say you don’t get a dime out of this until you put the law back in effect.
GB: Yeah, I just don’t understand how, what’s the point of having reauthorizations, and even having our legislative…
MKH: Or Congress…
GB: Yeah, even a Congress, our legislative branch, if they’re going to pass things, and you’re going to have to do really hard work to pass controversial bills and come together, if a president can just decide…I thought we couldn’t have a line item veto, which is what Barack Obama’s doing years after the fact, and totally gutting the letter and the spirit of the law that was signed by President Clinton?
RR: Absolutely. There’s no point in it at all. I spent probably two years of my life drafting this specific provision in law through multiple committees, and over and over again debating, that went into law, and set the foundation of this program, which, and the case load then dropped by 50%, employment surges, as I said, black child poverty, which had remained fixed for 25 years, drops dramatically.
GB: Yeah, so it was successful. It was successful.
RR: All of that is completely pointless, because he just wiped it out with the stroke of a pen.
GB: We’re talking to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. Robert, we’re almost out of time, but I just want to make crystal clear here. The way the law was written, the law that was signed by President Clinton, what Obama has done this week is in violation of the words and the language of the statute itself explicitly, right?
RR: Absolutely explicitly.
MKH: Maybe we can get Bill on the phone and ask him about it.
GB: Yeah, exactly. I wonder what Bill Clinton would say about this, or Newt Gingrich, or any of the main players. I mean, so many hours of toiling in Congress and the White House to make it work gone, because Obama wants no work requirements, super waivers for anyone who wants them, more dependency, you don’t have to work. That is Barack Obama’s America.
End of interview.