WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump said in his inaugural address that his administration would “get our people off of welfare and back to work.”
Trump hasn’t said much about how he’d reform welfare. But other members of his party have lots of ideas ― including drug tests for the poor and unemployed.
In the wake of the Great Recession, Republicans across the country complained that unemployed people were taking drugs instead of available jobs. Lawmakers pushed drug testing as a solution, but the Obama administration and federal courts blocked most of those efforts.
With Trump now in charge, Republicans are making moves. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) asked Trump in December to consider allowing states to drug test applicants for food stamps, one of the largest antipoverty programs in the U.S.
And this month, Republicans in the House of Representatives are moving legislation that would undo an Obama administration rule restricting states’ ability to drug test unemployment claimants.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said during a Tuesday hearing that letting states do drug tests “benefits the unemployed by helping to assure future employers that unemployment claimants reentering the workforce are truly able and available for work.”
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) accurately countered that Republicans had cited no evidence of rampant drug use among recipients of unemployment insurance.
“We are considering policy that slanders unemployed workers by assuming they are drug users,” Davis said.
The unemployment drug screening policy is among dozens of recent Obama administration regulations that congressional Republicans can overturn in the coming weeks using a special legislative procedure that lets lawmakers get rid of new regulations.
Since around 2010, Republicans (and some Democrats) have looked to urinalysis as a solution to economic woes, with lawmakers typically saying they’ve heard from local business leaders who are unable to recruit job applicants willing or able to pass drug tests. More than a dozen states have enacted some sort of drug screening requirement for beneficiaries of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal program most closely associated with the word “welfare.” It’s the only program that explicitly allows states to add a drug screening requirement, though courts can strike down random or blanket testing. The testing hasn’t caught many drug users.
With more than 40 million recipients, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program caseload is roughly 10 times bigger than TANF’s. Federal law bars states from adding drug tests, but Wisconsin and Georgia have nevertheless enacted policies that the Obama administration blocked administratively and in court. It’s hard to imagine the Trump administration doing the same.
We are considering policy that slanders unemployed workers by assuming they are drug users. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.)
Unemployment insurance is much more of a middle class benefit, since people are only eligible if they’ve worked for most of the previous year and were laid off because their employer is struggling. Federal law has long disallowed states from adding drug tests as a condition for receiving benefits, which are funded by taxes on business payrolls. But in 2012, Congress passed legislation that would allow testing for unemployment claimants in occupations where drug tests are common, for instance in jobs with a public safety component. Democrats gave Republicans drug testing; in return they got a costly extension of long-term unemployment benefits.
The law directed the Labor Department to come up with rules for deciding which occupations typically require testing. When the department finalized its rule in August, four years after Congress passed the law, Republicans said the Obama administration wrote it so narrowly that states basically wouldn’t be allowed to test anybody. By waiting so long, the Obama administration also made the rule vulnerable to being overturned by the Congressional Review Act, a rarely used legislative tool that lets lawmakers dump almost any recently issued regulation.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement that the Obama rule “contradicts congressional intent, oversteps executive authority, and undercuts a state’s ability to implement the law.”
On Tuesday, Republicans on the House Rules Committee advanced a resolution by Brady that would strike the rule. A committee spokeswoman said the resolution would be on the House floor next week. If approved, the measure would then head to the Senate, where it would only need a simple majority to pass. Once the rule’s off the books, either Congress could write a new law or the Trump Labor Department could simply draft a new rule. Then states could go ahead with new unemployment drug testing laws.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.