Two Members of Congress demanded an official explanation from Obama’s Health and Human Services Department (HHS) for its gutting of welfare work requirements—and HHS responded by saying (in many more words), “Well, years ago, some Republicans tried to do this.”

Except they didn’t.

Not only did Secretary Kathleen Sebelius completely ignore the legal questions surrounding the Administration’s unilateral rewriting of the law, but she also fabricated charges against Mitt Romney and 28 other Republican governors.

Last week, the Obama Health and Human Services Department (HHS) issued an administrative order overturning the welfare-to-work provisions of the successful welfare reform of 1996. This action was blatantly illegal.

Committee chairmen Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT) and Congressman Dave Camp (R–MI) quickly sent a letter to Sebelius challenging the legality of the action and demanding an explanation of the legal basis for the power grab.

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.

The 2005 letter from Governor Romney and other Republican governors urged the Senate to reauthorize the TANF program, an action that should have occurred four years earlier. (Reauthorization did not occur because the Senate Democrats blocked it in 2002 and filibustered it in 2003.)

In their 2005 letter, the governors do mention “increased waiver authority,” but they were clearly not asking for the ability to waive TANF work requirements. The mention of waiver authority relates to section 112(c) of the PRIDE bill: “program coordination demonstration projects.” The point of this very limited provision was to encourage 10 demonstrations on integrating and coordinating a limited set of welfare programs. The bill’s stated purpose was to “strengthen service systems and provide more coordination and effective service delivery.” The provision in the PRIDE bill did not grant section 1115 or any other authority to HHS to waive the TANF work standards.

The governors’ letter also speaks of greater administrative flexibility. Both the House-passed reauthorization in 2002 and the PRIDE bill would have provided greater administrative flexibility and simplification in some aspects of the work program, while substantially strengthening the core work requirements. But these changes have never become law, because the Senate Democrats have, for 10 years, resolutely blocked the passage of a separate TANF reauthorization law. (TANF was reauthorized as part the Deficit Reduction Act in 2006, but that venue limited the types of legal changes that could be made.)

The TANF work requirements have been extremely successful, lifting millions of Americans out of poverty, and they should not be overturned. Instead, they should be strengthened and applied in related programs such as food stamps and public housing.


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