Republicans are questioning the legality of a move by the Obama administration to absolve some states from a federal requirement that welfare recipients engage in “work activities.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that it will consider requests from states that wish to waive the requirement, which was at the heart of the 1996 welfare-reform law negotiated between congressional Republicans and President Clinton.
Administration officials say the change will give states more flexibility in developing new reforms, but GOP lawmakers argue the move is an illegal “power grab” aimed at undoing progress made under the current law.
“This is a brazen and unwarranted unraveling of welfare reform,” said Rep. David Camp, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “This ends welfare reform as we know it.”
Current law requires that at least 50 percent of welfare-receiving households in a state — and 90 percent of those with two parents — have an adult participating in regular “work activities,” which range from full-time employment to job training, community service or pursuit of a GED certificate.
Supporters have credited the provision with drastically reducing welfare enrollment throughout the nation, but critics say it has provided inadequate support during the economic downturn and has bogged states down in paperwork.
“We need state workers spending less time filling out data reports and more time helping parents find employment,” George Sheldon, the HHS acting assistant secretary for the Administration of Children and Families, wrote in a blog post Friday. “The new policy we announced will allow states to test new, more effective ways to help parents successfully prepare for, find and retain employment.”
The policy would allow states to launch their own welfare-reform projects,during which they would not have to require that recipients work.
Projects would be subject to HHS approval and limited to no more than five years.
Opponents argue the decision is an executive overreach in line with Mr. Obama’s order last month to limit deportation of young illegal immigrants.
The work requirement for recipients is detailed in a section of the Social Security Act, which the Obama administration does not have authority to waive.
However, the administration is allowed to waive another section of the act that includes language requiring states to enforce the work requirement.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explained that last week in a memo to states, concluding that while the executive branch is technically barred from waiving the work requirement, it can give states permission not to enforce it.
Republicans argue it is a blatantly incorrect interpretation of the law and contradicts a portion of the act that states that the work requirement cannot be waived.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney called Mr. Obama’s stance “completely misdirected,” while Mr. Camp and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, sent a letter to Mrs. Sebelius pressing her for further explanation.
“These  reforms promoted higher work and earnings and lower poverty and welfare dependence,” the lawmakers wrote, “and we will actively resist efforts to undermine the progress made since then.”