- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

When Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, a deeply divided Clinton team grappled with whether to support the legislation. When it did, three administration officials quit in protest; many other Democrats groused about the president's decision. Rep. Charles Rangel summed up liberal frustration. "My president he's a winner … and the kids are the losers."
Fast-forward five years and analyze the results. Welfare rolls dropped more than 50 percent since the early 1990s; poverty and child hunger declined; and more single mothers are employed with rising incomes. By nearly any measure, the 1996 welfare reform bill was one of the most successful pieces of social policy legislation in American history. Yet despite its impressive track record, Congress cannot muster the votes to reauthorize and build on the program, which technically expires in four days, at the end of the fiscal year. Why do bad things happen to good policies?
Welfare reform has been pummeled by the political equivalent of a perfect storm: cavernous and enduring conflicts among Democrats, cynicism in the media, and the GOP's inability to consistently articulate its alternative to the welfare state.
Although Mr. Clinton signed the legislation the third time it was sent to him, his party's support for welfare reform has always been tenuous. Democrats split down the middle when Congress passed the 1996 law, 98 voting for the bill and 98 voting against. Since passage of the Great Society, most liberals opposed the concept of work requirements as a precondition to receiving a welfare check. During the 1980s, the left considered "workfare" a reactionary idea. Even this year, when the House passed its version of welfare reform, most Democrats voted against the bill.
Democrats now embrace a new, yet equally liberal, approach: work, plus new Washington regulations and lots of federal cash. Last week, Senate Democrats offered Republicans a deal reauthorize current welfare programs in exchange for $3 billion in new federal spending for child-care programs. "That's a non-starter," one GOP leadership aide said. "Most around here believe the program can still function if it's not reauthorized as long as it's funded. We won't let the Democrats pass a bill that undoes many of the reforms we put in place in 1996."
The Congressional Research Service bolstered this view in an analysis arguing welfare reform programs could continue when the authorization expires as long as Congress provides funding. This undercuts the Democrats' leverage for more federal money, but it also hurts Republicans' chances to build on the successes of the 1996 act.
The press also plays a role in downplaying the success of welfare reform. Covering a policy success is less salacious than a corporate scandal or a policy gone awry. A search of news stories over the past two years yields many articles that say the law created a new class of "working poor." One linked welfare reform to spousal abuse; another said it caused two sisters and their 15-person family to move into a two-bedroom house. Producers and reporters share the same biases toward welfare reform as liberals in Congress. Rather than admit that their preconceptions were wrong, it's easier for members of the press to ignore the positive side of the story.
Finally, Republicans and conservatives share some blame for failures to communicate on this issue. Criticizing the welfare state was easy prey during the past two decades; advocating and explaining positive alternatives, however, remains elusive. By touting education reform, President Bush provides a voice for positive alternatives to inflexible, centralized government programs. Rejecting the old argument of "big government vs. indifferent government," the president believes compassion is measured in ways other than more government spending.
Yet, the president needs a larger amen chorus on Capitol Hill. "Most Republicans are more comfortable talking about fiscal policy," one GOP leadership aide told me. Some liken the exercise to parents talking to teen-agers about sex. It may be awkward, but it's necessary.
Rep. John Boehner, who understands the communications challenges surrounding this issue better than most in his party, said this: "Many Republicans do not have a lot of welfare recipients as constituents, but that's no excuse. We have to get on offense on this issue. It's going to become increasingly important to the president and the party moving toward the 2004 election."
Congress will extend welfare reform sometime this year, probably reauthorizing current law for one year in a year-end spending package. But that won't resolve the issue. Establishing a long-term conservative majority requires fresh and responsive thinking not just reflexive opposition to liberal proposals. Yet, helping the poor with laws based on dignity, hope, opportunity and work also demands more vigorous and vocal advocates to overcome the political pressures pushing the other direction.


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