Welfare Reform

The Congress Party Needs to Step Up

The frequency with which the Obama administration has gone rogue and completely ignored Congress’ will seems to increasing at an exponential rate. I fear that by the end of the campaign Obama will be issuing executive fiats on a daily basis. The latest: gutting welfare reform.

The landmark welfare reform law President Bill Clinton signed in 1996 helped move nearly 3 million families off the government dole — the result of federal work requirements that promoted greater self-reliance.

Yesterday the Obama administration gutted those federal work rules, ignoring the will of Congress by issuing a policy directive that allows the Department of Health and Human Services to waive the work requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. “The result is the end of welfare reform,” wrote Robert Rector and Kiki Bradley of The Heritage Foundation.

Surely there was a provision in the legislation that permitted the president to grant such waivers, right? Yes. And no.

Today the Obama administration issued a dramatic new directive stating that the traditional TANF work requirements will be waived or overridden by a legal device called a section 1115 waiver authority under the Social Security law (42 U.S.C. 1315).

Section 1115 allows HHS to “waive compliance” with specified parts of various laws. But this is not an open-ended authority: All provisions of law that can be overridden under section 1115 must be listed in section 1115 itself.

The work provisions of the TANF program are contained in section 407 (entitled, appropriately, “mandatory work requirements”). Critically, this section, as well as most other TANF requirements, is deliberately not listed in section 1115; its provisions cannot be waived. Obviously, if the Congress had wanted HHS to be able to waive the TANF work requirements laid out in section 407, it would have listed that section as waivable under section 1115. It did not do that.

Remember all those crocodile tears during the Bush years about the unitary executive? Leaving aside the fact that critics completely misrepresented the doctrine and its application, it seems the left has no problem with a president truly implementing the unitary executive doctrine. Only this time instead of the President being supreme within the Executive branch, he is evidently supreme over the entire federal government.

There will of course be no repercussions from this action. While it might be cathartic to pound the keyboard about the spineless Republicans, no amount of caterwauling can change the fact that the overwhelming majority of Democrats will ensure that no corrective action is taken. It was hard enough to get a contempt vote in the House against Eric Holder. Do you think the Democrats will really allow a serious investigation, or even more?

And that’s a true pity. There used to be a time when partisan identification was almost secondary to institutional concerns. Congressmen valued the independence and authority of their own branch of government, and simply sharing party affiliation with the president didn’t prevent Congressmen from jealously guarding their prerogatives. Inter-branch rivalries were an essential element in safeguarding our republic. Today that is gone. The same committee (Oversight) that has been commendably fastidious in investigating Fast and Furious will lay down like neutered dogs should Mitt Romney win the presidency. The committee was sure loath to investigate President Obama when controlled by Democrats two years ago.

This is truly a bi-partisan issue. Congress has completely abandoned its role as an independent, co-equal branch of government. The very fact that we are so consumed by the presidential campaign is a sad reflection of how pre-eminent the presidency has become.

Congressional Democrats should be just as furious as Congressional Republicans over Obama’s actions, regardless of how they feel about the policy. Wouldn’t it be nice if Congress as a whole regained a sense of institutional pride and reasserted their place in the federal framework? Sadly that’s as realistic an expectation as hoping that John Boehner will become John Rambo.

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