- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2010



By Robert B. Carleson

American Civil Rights Union, $26,

142 pages

Reviewed by Wes Vernon

Robert B. Carleson is not a household name, yet Carleson affected, in one way or another, every household in America. As former Attorney General Edwin Meese declared at an April 2006 memorial in honor of the then-just-departed Carleson, “If there had been no Bob Carleson, there would have been no President Reagan.”

That tribute, reflecting a consensus among those who viewed Ronald Reagan’s political career from behind the scenes, makes Carleson’s posthumously released memoirs all the more important. The impact of this “quiet giant,” as one obituary put it, was huge.

Carleson’s service at the very center of welfare reform for a quarter-century is recorded in his “Government Is the Problem.” His guiding hand was the chief factor in then-California Gov. Reagan’s successful welfare reforms in the early 1970s. This writer covered Washington hearings on welfare at the time. Reagan’s testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on the issue so impressed that panel’s Chairman Russell B. Long that the Louisiana Democrat asked if he could borrow Carleson’s talent to help the committee in its welfare work. The request was granted.

Reagan’s plan, crafted by Carleson, would end up taking hundreds of thousands of people off the public dole and enable those human beings to get out of the dead-end lives of dependency in which they and their ancestors had been locked for decades. At the same time, the outlays for those who were truly destitute increased.

But getting the program enacted required the typical Reagan persistence, charm and willingness to go over the heads of the Democratic legislators in Sacramento who - in a historic break with tradition - denied the governor permission to address the Legislature to outline his program. That figures. They already had denounced the program before they had had a chance to read it. So the Gipper found another audience: the people who embraced the reform.

There was bipartisan opposition to the Reagan plan - in both Sacramento and Washington. President Nixon’s undersecretary of health, education and welfare was California Republican Jack Veneman, an ally of California Assembly Speaker Robert Moretti, a Democrat

The Nixon administration was promoting its own welfare proposal, the Family Assistance Plan, a guaranteed-income scheme that would have moved welfare from the states to the federal government. It had considerable backing from Republicans on Capitol Hill, but even Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Great Society had grown the already big government to even more behemoth proportions, rejected a similar idea. “Too liberal,” he said. Carleson writes that part of the plan was “a cover for universal eligibility.”

Nixon’s plan failed to pass, thanks largely to Long - and with considerable help from Reagan’s Senate testimony, with Carleson by his side. Nixon, to his credit, later brought Carleson back to Washington to serve in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, predecessor of the Department of Health and Human Services, as U.S. commissioner of welfare. He would later beat back another guaranteed-income program during the presidency of Gerald Ford.

When he left his government position in the Ford administration, Carleson shocked Washington’s “permanent government” - or the “iron triangle,” as Reagan later called it - by accompanying his resignation with a suggestion that his position be abolished as unnecessary. That is an inside-the-Beltway rarity.

When Reagan was elected to the White House, Carleson headed the transition team at Health and Human Services and then became special assistant to the president for policy development. In that capacity, he was able to implement other means of curbing welfare spending while focusing on help for the truly needy, as he had done during the Nixon days.

Finally, the crowning achievement of Carleson’s amazing career: the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Carleson quotes Long (who spent 38 years inside the Senate Democrats’ planning sessions) as having told him, “If you want good welfare reform, do it in an election year. Democrats move right.”

That Cajun wisdom came in handy when Republicans gained full control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The author said he just couldn’t sit still in 1996, “not when we were on the verge of making welfare reform work.”

President Clinton vetoed the first two versions of the bill. He wanted to veto the third bill the Republican Congress ultimately sent him, but he was advised that doing so would lead to defeat in his re-election bid.

The Republicans wanted to hold back the bill so their presidential hopeful, Bob Dole, could use the issue against Mr. Clinton in the campaign. Carleson was the only voice in the Republican inner circle advising against this political ploy, arguing that Mr. Clinton would fire back that he would have signed it if the Republicans had only sent the bill to him.

Carleson’s common-sense advice was followed. The president signed the measure but privately promised the welfare establishment that after the election, he would issue executive orders negating much of it. Again, Carleson was one step ahead of his adversaries. On his recommendation, the Republicans inserted into the bill wording that foiled such presidential subversion of the new law.

Robert B. Carleson lived to see his 25-year dream of comprehensive welfare reform come to fruition. He outlines “next steps”: ending fraud and abuses in Medicaid, food stamps and Supplemental Security Income for the disabled.

Alas, in 2009, President Obama and the Congress led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - through the stimulus program - “effectively undid all the successful elements of the 1996 welfare reform that freed tens of millions of Americans from the shackles of dependence.”

The book’s surviving editors, Susan A. Carleson (the author’s widow and chief executive of the American Civil Rights Union, which her husband founded) and Hans Zeiger, lament that “the stage has been set to reinstitutionalize poverty.” Robbing America’s most vulnerable children of opportunity, they add, “will prove to be the cruelest act of government in our time.”

Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer and veteran broadcast journalist.

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