Obama’s defense on Romney’s welfare attacks: Republican governors

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

The Romney campaign has hit President Barack Obama hard this week for his administration's decision to grant waivers to states that want more flexibility in experimenting with their welfare programs. Mitt Romney is characterizing the move, announced mid-July, as a total rollback of the 1996 bipartisan welfare reform. That's when Congress added benefit limits and work requirements to shift people off government assistance and into the workforce.

"Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job," a Romney ad claimed. "They just send you your welfare check, and 'welfare to work' goes back to being plain old welfare."

PolitiFact gave this attack a "pants on fire" rating on Wednesday, saying it ignores the fact that the waiver will only be extended to states that seek to increase the percentage of welfare recipients engaging in work.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds are distributed to states in block grant form, with a bevy of strings attached that say for how long the money should be disbursed and what kinds of work recipients must do to receive the assistance. (Work can mean job training and searching for work.) States lose money if a certain percentage of their residents on welfare aren't engaging in work.

The waiver would give states more leeway in defining what kind of work counts toward the requirements, allowing for a welfare recipient to count more months of training or school as work if their circumstances merit it, for example. In theory, states would apply for these exceptions if they wanted to try out a pilot program that they thought would help them eventually decrease their welfare rolls.

Opponents of the waivers maintain that this flexibility could be abused by state officials, and say that the 1996 law was written to exclude the possibility of tinkering with the work requirements, which could mean the waivers are illegal. (Ron Haskins, who helped pass the 1996 law, told The Washington Post's Wonkblog that the administration should have made the waiver change through Congress. "It might not be illegal," he said. "But [the Department of Health and Human Services] didn't even consult with the Republicans. They knew the spirit of the law, and they violated that.")

But the Obama campaign has trotted out another defense: Republican governors, including Romney, have sought this sort of flexibility in the past. On a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Obama staffers said that Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert—both Romney supporters—had asked them about these waivers.

The state of Utah called for waivers that let states tinker with work requirements in 2011. "It is the narrow definitions of what counts and the burdensome documentation and verification processes that are not helpful," the Utah letter said.

The Romney campaign is now distributing a statement from Herbert that backs away somewhat from that initial request. "Underlying Utah's core principles regarding TANF programs is the basic objective that all customers must achieve full participation and employment," Herbert says.

Sandoval's office, meanwhile, told Politico that the governor was only inquiring about waivers, not actually requesting one. "Nevada did not request a waiver and has no intention of requesting one," Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner told Yahoo News.

Neither governor launched an attack on the idea that states should be given more flexibility to implement their welfare programs.

Meanwhile, Romney's own signature on a 2005 letter advocating for more flexibility has been a sticking point. On a conference call, Romney's campaign said that though he signed on with other Republican governors to support more flexibility on TANF, the governors were also in favor of increasing the overall welfare work requirement. The 2005 letter, which Gov. Rick Perry also signed, touted "increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit and the ability to coordinate state programs."