It’s a mark of just how fraught the atmosphere in Washington has been in recent weeks that a major legislative gambit to overhaul a key entitlement program has flown largely under the radar of the media. With the Iran nuclear deal and the antics of Donald Trump dominating the headlines, the fact that congressional Republicans are making a run at serious welfare reform has been underreported.
However, according to a report in National Journal, the effort to change the way Temporary Assistance for Needy Families operates is a major legislative priority, particularly in the House of Representatives, which top Republicans hope to have ready for a vote before the program’s existing temporary authorization expires at the end of September.
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TANF, commonly known as welfare, is the legislative successor to Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which it replaced with the signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996.
At the time, the new program was meant to instill a sense of responsibility in those receiving government assistance, by imposing tougher work requirements and by imposing a 60-month lifetime limit on assistance payments. It also gave states considerable discretion in how they applied the new law.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has long been a champion of rewriting the country’s various laws regarding entitlement programs, though his plans have often been criticized by Democrats as unnecessarily harsh.
The effort is being led by Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, the Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee’s Human Resources subcommittee. On Wednesday of last week, the same day that the Iran nuclear deal was announced, his subcommittee held a hearing on the new legislation, which he described as “proposals to improve the lives of families on welfare by better promoting work and helping families in need move up the economic ladder. Work is the only way for people to really escape poverty and achieve the American Dream, and we are eager to help more families succeed at doing just that.”
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The discussion draft of the proposed legislation is available here, and its details are still in flux.
Welfare reform has traditionally been the province of scorched earth partisan battles, but there appear to be some elements of bipartisan agreement. For instance, the proposal is stricter about applying work requirements to people who receive government assistance – something the GOP insisted on – while broadening the number of things that satisfy those requirements – a Democratic priority.
How the proposal will fare as lawmakers – and the media – refocus on domestic issues is an open question, but it seems fair to say that the debate on this proposal won’t remain in the shadows for long.