House Republicans will take one last shot at President Obama’s executive authority before rushing home for November’s elections when they vote this week on a bill blocking him from waiving work requirements from the bipartisan 1996 welfare reform law.
It’s the latest in a constant drumbeat of efforts to roll back Mr. Obama’s administrative moves since the GOP took control of the House in 2011. It likely will suffer the same fate as those others — passage in the House, only to die in the Senate where Democrats control the chamber and have defended Mr. Obama’s use of his powers.
The current debate centers around a July memorandum from the Health and Human Services Department that it was willing to allow states to opt out of federal work requirements of a main welfare initiative — the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program — if they come up with “test alternative and innovative strategies, policies and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes.”
HHS says its offer is designed to encourage states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of the welfare program — particularly helping parents successfully find and retain employment. The department adds it wants to give states greater flexibility in how they dole out welfare money, which is something many Republican governors have sought in recent years.
But the HHS memo sparked a backlash from congressional Republicans and their party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who accused the administration of “unilaterally gutting” welfare reform by “dropping” work requirements.
The GOP charge on Capitol Hill has been led by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan, who repeatedly have accused the administration of overstepping its legal authority and circumventing the powers of Congress.
At the request of the pair, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office released a report Tuesday showing that HHS never said prior to the July memo that it had the authority to issue waivers related to welfare work requirements. The GAO added HHS hasn’t issued any waivers since the TANF program began 16 years ago, despite several states expressing interest in obtaining one.
“This administration is unlawfully attempting to circumvent Congress to undo a successful law that they simply don’t like,” Mr. Camp said. “However, as the report shows, a decade and a half of precedent is not on their side, and neither is the court of public opinion.”
But the question of whether or not HHS has the legal authority to issue the waivers is still fuzzy, as the GAO hasn’t looked into the matter.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has pushed back against accusations that waivers would loosen work requirements for Americans on welfare. In a July letter to Mr. Hatch and Mr. Camp, she said her department was providing a “very limited waiver opportunity” designed to inspire states to get more people back to work in order to lower the numbers of those on the dole.
“Our goal is to accelerate job placement by moving more Americans from welfare to work,” Mrs. Sebelius wrote. “No (proposed state) policy which undercuts that goal or waters down work requirements will be considered or approved.”
The waiver debate is the latest attempt by House Republicans to overturn administration policies and initiatives.
On more than 30 occasions since last year, GOP-created bills to repeal parts or all of Mr. Obama’s 2010 health care law passed the House. The chamber repeatedly has voted to curb Environmental Protection Agency powers, including bills to eliminate the agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and water quality.