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Olivia Hernandez and Cesar Trevino consult with an Outreach Specialist at the San Antonio Food Bank in San Antonio, Texas, about applying for welfare programs. (USDA / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Romney, Ryan, GOP Demand Obama Stop Strengthening Welfare-to-Work

Republicans flip-flop on welfare-to-work, challenging efforts by Obama to help states find jobs for welfare recipients.

BY Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

In July, Mitt Romney launched an attack on the administration's offer to meet a demand from states for more flexibility so states could move more people to work instead of pushing more paper around. Now, Republicans in Congress are taking up the cause.

Republicans in two Congressional committees voted last week to press forward with legislation that would deny states the flexibility they requested to help more welfare recipients get jobs.

That's right. 

Not only that, Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential candidate, said last week he is eager to return to Washington this week for a floor vote on the Republican measure prohibiting the Obama administration from, as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) described it: “encouraging states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF (welfare), particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find and retain employment.”

That's right.

Republicans don't want the Obama administration to help states get welfare recipients off the dole and into jobs. In July, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched an attack on the administration's offer to meet a demand from states for more flexibility so states could move more people to work instead of pushing more paper around. Now, Republicans in Congress are taking up the cause of thwarting Obama's plan to grant states' request for flexibility. Historically, Republicans supported moving welfare recipients off the federal rolls and onto private pay rolls. But they're not going to let Obama get credit for accomplishing that.

 This dispute began with an attempt by the Obama administration to reduce regulatory burdens. Here's what President Obama wrote Feb. 28, 2011 in the Administrative Flexibility memo:

 “I am instructing agencies to work closely with state, local, and tribal governments to identify administrative, regulatory, and legislative barriers in federally funded programs that currently prevent states, localities, and tribes, from efficiently using tax dollars to achieve the best results for their constituents.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took the directive seriously and asked states for suggestions. Some state officials complained about burdensome welfare reform paperwork requirements and asked if HHS would provide flexibility. Among them were Utah and Nevada, both of which have Republican governors. Utah also has a Republican supermajority in its legislature.

HHS responded with a memo to states issued on July 12. It offers states a chance to achieve flexibility through waiver of some welfare rules if states conduct HHS-approved pilot programs that move additional welfare recipients to work in measureable ways.

The memo states at least 10 times that the goal is increased employment. For example, there's this:

 “HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF (welfare).

“Moreover, HHS is committed to ensuring that any demonstration projects approved under this authority will be focused on improving employment outcomes and contributing to the evidence base for effective programs; therefore, terms and conditions will require a federally-approved evaluation plan designed to build our knowledge base.”

In a letter that accompanied the memo, HHS repeats incessantly that all proposals must fulfill the goal of increased employment. Of the 21 sentences, at least 10 specify that less welfare and more work is mandated by the law, is important and will be required for waiver. For example, there's this:

 “The (HHS) Secretary is only interested in approving waivers if the state can explain in a compelling fashion why the proposed approach may be a more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs that offer opportunities for earnings and advancement that will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits.”

Despite all that, Mitt Romney began condemning the waiver offer immediately after it was issued. Congressional Republicans hope this week to bludgeon it to death with legislation forbidding HHS from providing the flexibility requested by governors, including Republicans Gary Herbert of Utah and Brian Sandoval of Nevada. Herbert's state department of HHS wrote the federal HHS in 2011 seeking flexibility:

“Nevada is very interested in working with your staff to explore program waivers…”

Like welfare-to-work, Republicans have long supported “flexibility” for states in implementing federal mandates. For example, in 2005 every Republican governor in the nation - 29 of them - wrote Congress to support a bill that would have allowed waivers to welfare reform law requirements. The governors told Congress they wanted “flexibility to manage their TANF (welfare) programs.” The letter said:

 “Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work.”

Mitt Romney signed that letter. He was among the 29 governors seeking flexibility through waivers to manage welfare.

That's right. The same Mitt Romney who now is denouncing the Obama administration's effort to provide flexibility.

 Now, Romney despises flexibility. Now, he hates waivers. Now, he's demanding an end to the effort by HHS to give states the ability to experiment with pilot programs to increase the employment of welfare recipients.

It's yet another Romney flip-flop, another Romney Etch-A-Sketch moment. Said it once, erase it now. Romney figures GOP inconsistency doesn't matter as long as it hurts President Obama somehow.

Full disclosure: The USW is an In These Times sponsor.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco's nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

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