Mitt Romney's latest television ad attacks the Obama administration for announcing a "plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements." It's a strong allegation, but according to a former Republican congressional aide who was key to crafting welfare reform in the 1990s, it's also not true.
"There's no plausible scenario under which it really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform," Ron Haskins, who is now co-director of the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families, said in an interview with NPR that aired on Wednesday.
Haskins spent 14 years on the staff of the House Ways and Means Committee's Human Resources Subcommittee, first as welfare counsel to the Republican staff, then as the subcommittee’s staff director. In 2002, he was President George W. Bush's senior adviser on welfare policy.
Welfare, formally known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, is administered by states within federal rules. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services invited states to apply for waivers from some rules in order to run "demonstration projects" so that states could "consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment."
Haskins noted that the requirements states have to meet in order to receive the waivers are quite rigorous.
"First of all, the states have to apply individually for waivers," he said. "And they have to explain in detail, sometimes using data, why this approach would lead to either more employment or better jobs for people who are trying to welfare or get off welfare."
As The Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney has pointed out, this waiver policy was sought out by Republican governors. In a release defending its waiver request from conservative backlash last month, the office of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said, "Utah's request for a waiver stems from a desire for increased customization of the program to maximize employment among Utah’s welfare recipients."
In 2005, as Massachusetts governor, Romney also signed a letter in support of a waiver policy -- a fact left out of his new TV ad.
Haskins said he's not sure if the Obama administration had the authority to make these changes to the welfare program; it might have required congressional approval. But even so, that doesn't mean they will "gut" the program.
"So it was kind of like, Democrats sticking their finger in the Republicans' eye because they just did a sneak attack, didn't consult and so forth," he said.
Former President Bill Clinton, who signed welfare reform into law in 1996, hit back against Romney's charges on Tuesday night.
"Governor Romney released an ad today alleging that the Obama administration had weakened the work requirements of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act," Clinton said in a statement. "That is not true."
Listen to the NPR interview:
UPDATE: 11:15 a.m. -- On a Republican National Committee conference call on Wednesday, The Huffington Post's Sam Stein asked Newt Gingrich about Haskins' assessment.
"I was sorry that he has such a lack of imagination," said Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House when welfare reform was being written.
"The thing someone needs to ask Ron Haskins is simple: why was 407 non-waiveable?" he added, referring to a section of the welfare reform law. "He was in the room. So were people like [former Michigan Gov.] John Engler's staff and [former Wisconsin Gov.] Tommy Thompson's staff and [former Utah Gov.] Mike Leavitt's staff and [former Virginia Gov.] George Allen's staff. It was the most integrated state-federal reform I think that has ever been tried on Capitol Hill. And so, they all agreed because they were hardcore solid conservatives who believed in work ethic. And the bill he is describing says it is non-waiveable."
The waiver authority in section 1115 of the Social Security Act -- where this law lives -- allows states to waive requirements in Section 402. Language in 402 requires "a parent or caretaker receiving assistance under the program to engage in work" as it is outlined in 407. Essentially, 402 is the section that has the work requirement, while 407 contains the details.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified John Engler as a former member of Congress. He was in fact the former governor of Michigan.