- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

The new round of discussions on welfare reform has been surprisingly harmonious, probably because "success has a thousand parents," Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday.
Mr. Thompson, who as Wisconsin governor was a lead negotiator during the contentious first round of welfare-reform debates in 1996, said yesterday he had expected to find opposition and tough questions for the new plan.
Instead, he said he has been "pleasantly surprised" by the reception Republican and Democratic members of Congress have signaled support for President Bush's plan and a two-hour meeting with the nation's governors "was almost a lovefest."
On Tuesday, Mr. Bush released his administration's proposals for welfare reform, which must be renewed by Congress this year.
Key elements of the plan are to broaden work requirements, increase state flexibility, reopen the food stamp program to noncitizens and direct up to $300 million to promote marriage and strengthen family relationships.
Why is the reaction to Welfare Reform II so different from Welfare Reform I? "I think it's because it's a success," Mr. Thompson said in a meeting with reporters at his office.
"I don't know of anybody in Congress although maybe you can find somebody who wants to go back to the old entitlement AFDC [Aid to Families With Dependent Children] program.
"Success has a thousand parents and everybody wants to take part of this. This has been one of the most successful social changes in 60 years in America," he said. "And instead of just saying 'no' and criticizing it, they want to be part of building the next plateau. They want to be constructive but they want some of their own ideas in it."
Mr. Thompson predicted "a lot of bipartisan discussions on how we might be able to improve the plan and make it better."
"And I think that's exciting. … I'm a person who likes new ideas," said the secretary, adding that he was personally intrigued by Democratic proposals for job credits and fatherhood programs.
Mr. Thompson, noted for "ending" welfare in Wisconsin, said he was especially pleased with a proposed "superwaiver" that would allow states to amend program rules from multiple federal agencies.
"When I was governor," Mr. Thompson said, "I was thinking about how great it would be to be able to develop a program" in which the state could put food stamps and welfare benefits on a smart card for recipients, plus give them access to education and housing.
Federal rules in HHS and the Education, Labor and Agriculture Departments would not allow such innovation, he said, and waivers or permission to change federal rules were hard to come by.


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