The U.S. House passed legislation Wednesday championed by two Minnesota Republicans that would block the Obama administration from granting Minnesota and other states waivers from Clinton-era welfare-to-work rules. The largely party-line vote was 246-181.
While the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to follow suit, the move revives the national debate over state demands for more flexibility in implementing the 1996 welfare reform law, credited with a record decline in welfare dependence.
Minnesota is among more than two dozen states that have signaled a desire to streamline reporting requirements, focus on work assistance and cut red tape to improve workforce participation.
“Minnesota believes that, with this flexibility, we can do a better job of ensuring that parents who turn to public assistance receive the training they need to find a job and achieve personal independence,” state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson wrote in a recent newspaper editorial. Jesson, joined by state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, a leading Republican on the state House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, vowed that “we are not considering eliminating work requirements.”
But congressional Republicans, following the lead of Mitt Romney’s GOP presidential campaign, have accused the White House of trying to gut the landmark welfare-to-work law.
A similar attempt to block the administration’s waiver proposal passed the House last September, at the height of the presidential campaign. It went nowhere in the Senate.
The new effort was sponsored by Minnesota Republican John Kline, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the federal welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). “Ignoring the heart of the law will unwind years of progress in moving families from welfare to work,” Kline said. He added that the GOP bill “will block the administration’s reckless attempt to turn back the clock on welfare reform and protect policies that have helped lift families out of poverty.”
U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., also has supported the bill as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which has authority over funding the $16.5-billion-a-year program. In a recent blog post, he cited a Government Accountability Office report suggesting that some states could count bed rest, exercise and massage as job-seeking activities.
The issue got caught up in the presidential election last July when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it would consider waivers from the law’s requirement that half of a state’s caseload receiving welfare benefits be working or preparing for work.
But the aim of the waivers, Obama officials said, was to increase work requirements, not eliminate them. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said that to obtain waivers, states would have to put forward alternatives that would move 20 percent more people from welfare to work.
So far, the administration has received no formal waiver requests. But among governors who’ve made the case for waivers was former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who signed a 2005 letter with 28 other GOP governors asking for more flexibility in administering welfare-to-work programs. Pawlenty cautioned last summer in an ABC News interview that he did not want to dismantle the law’s work requirements.
U.S. Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, led the party’s defense of the waivers Wednesday on the House floor. He called the GOP claims about weakening welfare-to-work requirements “blatantly false ... and patently political.”
Currently, participants in the Minnesota Family Investment Program must devote a set number of hours to a mandated list of activities in order for the state to meet its federal performance targets.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.