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Obama (left) and Clinton Wednesday night
Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite
Obama (left) and Clinton Wednesday night

Welfare work debate

Welfare | As politicians from both parties debate changes to welfare reform, a new government report sides with Republicans

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - During his full-throated support of President Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton chided Republicans for accusing President Obama of gutting the transformational welfare reform measure he signed into law in 1996.

President Clinton said the Republican claim that Obama is removing the reform law's highly successful work requirements for beneficiaries is "just not true."

In touting the reform law's success, Clinton failed to mention that, before singing the law, he vetoed it twice because he initially disagreed with its stringent work requirements. Clinton on Wednesday night also failed to mention a new report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) that confirms the Obama administration bypassed Congress this summer when it announced its controversial changes to the welfare work requirements.

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The GAO analysis released Tuesday said Congress should be allowed to vote on the changes the Obama administration unilaterally imposed on the established welfare law.

In July the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a new policy directive changing the work mandate requiring welfare recipients to be employed or prove they're looking for work as a condition for receiving aid.

Conservative groups from The Heritage Foundation to Focus on the Family erupted in protest over the change, arguing that it would undermine a reform law that has moved 2.8 million families off of welfare rolls. Republican lawmakers on the campaign trail also have made the sudden welfare changes a regular part of their stump speeches.

"Under President Clinton we got welfare reform," Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said Wednesday to a crowd near Des Moines, Iowa, "which moved people from welfare to work, to get people out of poverty. President Obama is rolling back welfare reform."

The Obama administration claims that the change provides states with more flexibility in how they run their welfare programs. HHS officials also argue that the administration has the power to make the changes without congressional approval.

But the GAO, asked by congressional Republicans to investigate the welfare rewrite, determined otherwise.

"It must be submitted to Congress and the comptroller general before taking effect," Lynn H. Gibson, the GAO's general counsel, wrote this week in a letter to lawmakers.

While the GAO finding is not binding, Republicans on Capitol Hill are using the report to push for a congressional vote on the changes. But it is unlikely that enough Senate Democrats will agree to even allow the issue to be brought up for a debate.

"Circumventing Congress, as this White House has done, is a flagrant abuse of our system of checks and balances and an insult to American taxpayers," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Hatch introduced legislation to block the Obama administration's decision.

In the 16 years since lawmakers overhauled the nation's welfare system, the number of people receiving cash assistance has fallen by two-thirds. And public spending on the program has dropped by more than half. Before the 1996 reform law, individuals remained on welfare for an average of 13 years, creating a plague of government dependency for millions of Americans. Today the average is less than two years.

But welfare expenditures have increased under President Obama. The government now spends nearly $1 trillion each year on welfare programs. During the next 10 years, welfare spending is projected to cost taxpayers $10.3 trillion.

"Work requirements were the centerpiece of welfare reform, and we cannot allow that progress to be undone," said Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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