Economy & Budget

GAO finds no authority to waive welfare to work rules

GAO finds no authority to waive welfare to work rules
Then President Clinton signs welfare reform legislation in 1996.

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has rejected every request to waive welfare-to-work rules since the law was enacted by Congress 16 years ago stating it did not have such authority, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The findings released Wednesday come as Republican lawmakers are set to pass a House resolution this week criticizing the Obama administration for waiving the work requirements for welfare recipients.

The administration says they needed to waive the work rules in order “to explore new ways to strengthen work requirements,” prompting howls from Republican lawmakers who say it was the signature component of welfare reform passed by a GOP Congress and former President Bill Clinton.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and one of the lawmakers requesting the GAO review, discussed the findings during a speech Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation.

“Either the administration is trying to pull one over on us when they say that they are strengthening work requirements by waiving them, or they are using a different edition of the dictionary over at the Department of Health and Human Services,” Hatch said.

“The administration has, as a matter of fact, given itself the authority to waive the work requirements that were central to the successful bipartisan welfare reform of the 1990s,” Hatch said. “And they did so, not through any change to the law establishing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), but by bureaucratic fiat.”

The Obama administration has authorized states to “test approaches and methods other than those set forth” in the welfare reform law, including new definitions of work activities and how participation rates are calculated that the GAO report describes as a new precedent.

“Based on our discussions with HHS officials and our review of HHS documents, we did not find any evidence that HHS stated that it has the authority to issue waivers related to (welfare) work requirements …” the GAO said. In fact, numerous states have requested such waivers, and were rejected by HHS claiming it had no such authority.

While states have some flexibility in administering the program there are numerous federal requirements and guidelines the states must meet as well as ensuring that a certain number engage in work activities, the report said.

“Under the new program TANF increased the percentage of welfare recipients expected to prepare for work, imposed stronger sanctions against individuals who did not participate as required by states, and placed time limits on the receipt of cash assistance for many TANF recipients, among other changes,” the report said.

The GAO also noted that there were 1.9 million families receiving the cash assistance in December 2011.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, also requested the GAO review, and said in a statement that the findings confirm HHS does not have the authority to waive work requirements.

“Now this administration is unlawfully attempting to circumvent Congress to undo a successful law that they simply don’t like,” Camp said. “However, as the report shows, a decade and a half of precedent is not on their side, and neither is the court of public opinion. The American people overwhelmingly believe work ought to be a condition for receiving welfare. The Obama administration has simply gone too far, and Congressional action this week will provide a necessary balance to this blatant attempt to circumvent Congress.”

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