- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

Like Bill Clinton in recent days, the liberal Sen. John Kerry has spent the past few years bragging about his support for the historic 1996 welfare-reform bill. But neither is likely to admit that welfare reform, which has proved to be one of the most successful social-policy legislative acts in U.S. history, comprised a central plank in Rep. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America.”

Welfare reform ultimately became law in August 1996, less than three months before Messrs. Clinton and Kerry faced the voters. At the time, a vast majority of Americans had become thoroughly disgusted with the self-destructive welfare policy that Democratic liberalism had embraced for decades, even as its direct consequences of social catastrophe were clear for all to see. The fact that real welfare reform had finally become law within months of the 1996 election was hardly coincidental. Mr. Kerry, who had spent years fighting real reform, strongly supported Mr. Clinton when he vetoed two solid, Republican-initiated welfare-reform plans in late 1995 and early 1996. Because their Republican opponents and voters had rightly understood their opposition to be little more than liberal obstructionism, the issue was causing Messrs. Clinton and Kerry grief in their 1996 campaigns for re-election.

Indeed, Mr. Kerry revealed his aggressive hostility to welfare reform in 1988. Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole introduced a “workfare” amendment. The Dole amendment would have required — by 1994, six years later — at least one parent in a two-parent household receiving welfare to work a minimum of 16 hours per week. By any standard of toughness, this was a very weak requirement. But it proved to be too draconian for the liberal standards of Mr. Kerry, who voted against the amendment, which passed with bipartisan support. During Senate debate, he complained that the 1988 welfare-reform bill “contains provisions troublesome to me, such as the 16-hour weekly work requirement for two-parent families.” During his 1996 Senate re-election campaign, when his opponent, then-Gov. Bill Weld, attacked him for his 1988 vote, Mr. Kerry incongruously argued that he opposed the work requirement for two-parent welfare families because he favored work requirements for single-parent families.

Having voted against the workfare amendment in 1988, Mr. Kerry in 1992 opposed “learnfare,” a reform that would have permitted states to withhold welfare benefits from parents whose children failed to attend school regularly. Two years later, his hostility to reform continued. After numerous press reports revealed the widespread abuse of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability payments to alcoholics and drug addicts whose only disability was their addiction, the public demanded reform. On Sept. 8, 1994, however, Mr. Kerry introduced two amendments to a Senate welfare-reform bill that would guarantee to continue to “provide Supplemental Security Income benefits to persons who are disabled by reason of drug or alcohol abuse.”

During the 1995 welfare-reform debate, Mr. Kerry voted against the “family cap” provision, which would have prohibited states from raising a welfare recipient’s cash benefits for having additional children while collecting welfare. He also voted against an amendment that would have required most able-bodied, non-elderly food-stamp recipients to work 10 hours a week. Mr. Kerry eventually voted against the 1995 welfare conference report.

After fighting in 1994 for SSI benefits for crack addicts, in 1996 Mr. Kerry voted against random drug-testing programs for welfare recipients. He also opposed an amendment with bipartisan support that would deny welfare benefits to legal immigrants. In yet another vote to encourage immigrants to go on the dole, he voted to delay for two years a provision that would have denied Medicaid benefits to immigrants for five years.

After being relentlessly pounded by Mr. Weld throughout the first half of 1996 for voting against two conference reports containing real welfare-reform plans in 1995, Mr. Kerry reversed years of hostile opposition to welfare reform and finally supported the 1996 bill. By contributing to his very narrow November victory over Mr. Weld, that vote probably saved Mr. Kerry’s political career. More than anything else, that no doubt explains why he cast it.

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