CHN: Congress Adjourns for Recess Without Addressing TANF
Welfare Reauthorization Faces an Uncertain Future
The Senate adjourned August 2 for a month-long recess, leaving the reauthorization of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) – the 1996 law that created the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program – as unfinished business. Set to expire on September 30, 2002, TANF provides critical assistance to low-income populations, including cash benefits and various work supports. A busy floor schedule and competing reauthorization proposals, however, have stalled movement in the Senate, delaying final action on a bill.
The House of Representatives passed its reauthorization bill – the Personal Responsibility, Work, and Family Promotion Act of 2002 (HR 4737) – on May 16 by a 229 to 197 margin. The House bill, which closely resembles the reauthorization proposal forwarded by President Bush, would mandate that states engage 70 percent of their welfare caseload in a forty-hour workweek. Anti-poverty advocates have criticized the bill for imposing punitive work requirements and failing to provide adequate funding for work supports such as childcare. Among other provisions, the bill contains funds to promote “healthy marriages” and a “superwaiver” measure that would grant sweeping authority to the Executive Branch to allow states to waive federal rules that govern a range of low-income programs.
The Senate Finance Committee passed its version of HR 4737, the Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids (WORK) Act of 2002 on June 26 by a 13 to 8 margin. While not perfect, the Senate version differs greatly from the GOP-backed House legislation and, among advocates, is generally considered a good bill. The bill maintains the current thirty-hour workweek required of recipients, creates an employment credit to reward states for moving TANF participants into jobs, restores certain benefits to legal immigrants, expands the definition of work, and increases child care funding by $5.5 billion over five years.
The committee adopted seven amendments, including one offered by Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to allow states the option to count higher or vocational education as an approved work activity for up to ten percent of their welfare caseload. Also approved was an amendment offered by Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) giving states the option to exempt caretakers of a disabled family member from work participation requirements. Senator Bob Graham’s (D-FL) amendment to allow states to provide SCHIP and Medicaid to legal immigrant pregnant women and children was also agreed to by the committee.
Floor action on TANF reauthorization has been delayed until after the August recess and may be postponed further. Although many Senators, including Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), have indicated they would like to pass TANF reauthorization legislation in September, limited time and a lack of consensus may jeopardize action. If a bill is not agreed to in September, the Senate could take up the issue in a “lame duck” session after the fall elections.
Otherwise, Congress would need to pass a one-year extension of current law and revisit the issue next year (it has also been rumored that some House Republicans favor pushing a three-year extension of the current program). The inability to complete welfare reauthorization this year raises concerns among anti-poverty advocates, who fear that TANF funding could be cut under worsening budget conditions in the next few years. Furthermore, advocates caution that should the Republicans regain control of the Senate this November, the chances of enacting a progressive reauthorization measure will be weakened.
For his part, President Bush is standing by his “get tough” proposal. He has criticized the Senate Finance Committee’s bill, despite the fact that numerous Republicans support it. The President even specifically attacked the amendment to the bill to allow welfare recipients to attend college – an amendment offered by a member of his own party, Senator Snowe of Maine.