In what was billed as his first major policy speech since assuming leadership of the House, Speaker Paul Ryan on December 3 announced that welfare reform would be one of the chamber’s top priorities in the coming year and that evidence would play an important role.
Ryan’s vocal support may make House passage more likely, but it may also make its enactment less likely in the current session of Congress.
Coming just one day after the House passed a replacement for No Child Left Behind on a largely bipartisan vote, Ryan’s speech was seen as a major partisan shift, possibly marking the unofficial start of the 2016 campaign on Capitol Hill.
“We need a new president,” he said. “It’s just that simple. But even if we can’t move mountains, we can make moves in the right direction.”
He called on his Republican colleagues to pass a “complete alternative to the Left’s agenda” that includes welfare reform, tax reform, trade legislation, and passing a replacement for Obamacare.
Ryan’s welfare proposal would strengthen work requirements, combine funding from several federal programs, and give states and communities greater flexibility to “try different ideas” and “test the results.”
It drew a quick response from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which criticized it as “block-granting the safety net.” The organization said the Ryan proposal was likely to reduce assistance to needy families.
Welfare reform had already taken a noticeably partisan turn before Ryan’s speech, but the year began on a more bipartisan note. In April, Congress passed extensions for two major evidence-based initiatives, home visiting and teen pregnancy prevention. By then, the House Ways and Means Committee had already begun holding hearings on reauthorizing the principal federal welfare law, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
In July, House Republicans unveiled a draft proposal that they had negotiated with Democrats. The draft included a proposal for social impact partnerships, also known as social impact bonds, similar to legislation introduced by Reps. Todd Young (R-IN) and John Delaney (D-MD). Young also introduced separate legislation that would create a What Works Clearinghouse for welfare programs, similar to the one that now exists at the Department of Education, and a bill that would authorize and evaluate coordinated care for TANF recipients.
At a July 15 hearing, LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, lent the bill cautious support. “The draft bill doesn’t go far enough but it provides a strong starting point for bringing about meaningful change,” she said.
Soon afterward, however, the bipartisanship began to unravel. Conservatives at the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Cato Institute raised questions about the bill, particularly provisions they felt weakened the existing work requirements. By August the two sides were drifting apart.
“My feeling is that the changes that I advanced to get us to a point where we could see bipartisan sponsors and support for this were basically not given serious consideration,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, ranking Democrat on the Human Resources subcommittee.
Presidential campaign politics may also have played a contributing role. In the spring, several Republican candidates like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush had been campaigning on an agenda of reform conservatism and reducing inequality. Bush himself echoed the compassionate conservative themes that had helped get his brother elected president. But Donald Trump’s rise changed much of the campaign’s tone, upending a strategy intended to expand the party beyond its base.
In November, after Speaker Boehner stepped down under pressure from a restive Republican caucus, the Ways and Means Committee held another hearing, this time focusing on proposals to consolidate existing anti-poverty programs.
Welfare Reform 2.0
Ryan’s recent speech appears to signal a return to an anti-poverty proposal that he unveiled in 2014, which he called Welfare Reform 2.0.
At its heart is a proposal called an Opportunity Grant, which would consolidate several existing anti-poverty programs and give states increased flexibility coupled with rigorous evaluation requirements. The proposal would also move several other programs in a more evidence-based direction, including Head Start and college preparation programs like TRIO. The Ryan plan drew substantial commentary from both the left and right.
Ryan’s speech suggests that the bipartisan approach of the summer has been set aside in favor of a new approach that would clearly articulate Republican thinking. In November, the newly appointed head of the Human Resources Subcommittee, Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), indicated that he is ready to move legislation when asked.
Could a more partisan approach work? When welfare reform was enacted in 1996, it was also passed by a Republican Congress under a Democratic president. Congress under then Speaker Newt Gingrich passed welfare reform three times before President Clinton signed it into law.
At least one expert familiar with the 1996 legislation questions the comparison. Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, says the two sides were more willing to negotiate then. House Republicans and Clinton had both campaigned on welfare reform and both wanted a win headed into the 1996 elections.
“In 1996, there was a back channel between congressional Republicans and Clinton,” he said. “They made a lot of changes to the bill to attract Clinton. I don’t see that here at all. Obama has less influence on the Hill.”