Trip Gabriel Rides to Defense of Obama on Relaxing Welfare Rules, Calls Conservative Charges 'a Stretch'

Riding to the defense of the Obama administration, New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel termed allegations by conservatives that Obama had weakened federal welfare policy "a stretch" in a Wednesday news story, "Romney Presses Obama On Work in Welfare Law."

Mitt Romney accused President Obama on Tuesday of gutting one of the signature bipartisan accomplishments of the recent political era: the overhaul of welfare policy.

Mr. Romney, taking up criticism that has gripped conservatives for the last few weeks, attacked a directive by the Obama administration that Republicans say does an end run around the welfare law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, that is widely credited with reducing government dependency.

“I hope you understand,” Mr. Romney said while campaigning here, “President Obama in this last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare.”

“If I’m president,” he added, “I’ll put work back in welfare.”

The attack drew an all-out denial from the White House and the Obama campaign, which accused Mr. Romney of warping the issue and, not least, of hypocrisy because, as Massachusetts governor, he urged similar flexibility in the federal law.


The speech was part of a coordinated assault with the Republican National Committee, which sounded the theme in a television ad on Tuesday. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” the ad’s narrator says. “They just send you your welfare check.”

That claim seemed a stretch even by the standards of 30-second political ads. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, which issued the welfare initiative in a memo on July 12, wrote later in the month that to qualify a state must “move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance.”


In allowing states to seek waivers from features of the work requirements, the administration said it was responding to their requests to streamline bureaucracy.


But conservative critics, including Speaker John A. Boehner and the Heritage Foundation, pounced on the new rules, which they said would lead to redefining “work” to include activities like hula dancing and attending weight-loss programs.

Of five states that initially requested or considered waivers, two have Republican governors, Utah and Nevada, the administration said.

Gabriel stuck to the White House playbook, jabbing at the "hypocrisy" line.

But Mr. Romney was also one of 29 Republican governors who urged the federal government in 2005 to allow waivers granting more flexibility for their state welfare programs.

Amy Payne at the Heritage Foundation offered up a rebuttal to Sebelius's argument so confidently forwarded by the Times.

HHS now claims that states receiving a waiver must “commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s prior performance.” But given the normal turnover rate in welfare programs, the easiest way to increase the number of people moving from “welfare to work” is to increase the number entering welfare in the first place.

Bogus statistical ploys like these were the norm before the 1996 reform. The law curtailed use of sham measures of success and established meaningful standards: Participating in work activities meant actual work activities, not “bed rest” or “reading” or doing one hour of job search per month; reducing welfare dependence meant reducing caseloads. Now those standards are gone.

Payne also cited Heritage scholar Robert Rector defending Romney and the other Republican governors against the White House charge of hypocrisy (emphasis added):

HHS responded that Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, sought a waiver from federal work requirements in 2005.

In support of this concoction, the Administration provided a letter from Romney and 28 other Republican governors to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R–TN) from that year.

But this letter makes no mention at all of waiving work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In fact, the legislation promoted in the letter – the Personal Responsibility and Individual Development for Everyone (PRIDE) Act – actually would have toughened the federal work standards. It proposed raising the mandatory participation rates imposed on states from 50 percent to 70 percent of the adult TANF caseload and increasing the hours of required work activity.

The governors’ letter actually contradicts the Administration’s main argument: If the law has always permitted HHS to waive the work requirements, then why didn’t the governors just request waivers from then-President George W. Bush? Why would legislation be needed?

Two reasons: First, it has been clear for 15 years that the TANF law did not permit HHS to waive the work requirements. Second, the Republican governors were not seeking to waive the work requirements in the first place.