CHN: Thompson Defends Bush TANF Plan

Lawmakers Voice Concerns About Potential State Burdens
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson was called to testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee on April 9, as congressional activity on the reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program heightens. Also on April 9, Education and Workforce Committee member Representative Howard McKeon (R-CA) introduced the Working Toward Independence Act of 2002 (HR 4092).

Secretary Thompson presented President Bush’s TANF reauthorization plan to the committee, with Democratic members raising concerns about the proposal’s call for sharp increases in work participation rates among recipients without providing additional money for childcare or other support services. House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Democrats voiced similar concerns to the Secretary when he defended the President’s proposal before those committees in mid-March.

Thompson indicated that due to the war on terrorism and homeland security spending needs, increased funding for childcare – and TANF generally – could not be included in the President’s TANF proposal. Instead, he responded to Democratic concerns about the need for increased childcare assistance by assuring representatives that he will work with them to find solutions to these issues. Encouraged by the Secretary’s commitment to working with members on childcare, Representative Patsy Mink (D-HI) urged Thompson to consider “stopping the clock” for TANF cases where parents are willing to work, but are unable to find adequate, affordable childcare. The Secretary stated he would consider Mink’s recommendation.

The Administration’s proposal would require states to have 70 percent of their caseloads engaged in certain work activities by 2007, up from the current requirement of about 30 percent. In addition, the plan would increase the hours per week a recipient must work from 30 to 40. Many Democrats have joined the nation’s governors, state program officials and advocates in arguing that the proposed requirements would be nearly impossible to implement because of, among other things, the weak economy, higher unemployment rates, and a lack of funding in the President’s plan for work support services.

Generally, Education and Workforce Republicans praised the President’s proposal; however, some questioned the decreased state flexibility contained in the plan, in addition to raising concerns about the opportunities for job advancement among welfare recipients. Specifically, Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) asked the Secretary whether job advancement was an element of the President’s plan. Thompson replied that the new requirements – that recipients work 40 hours per week and that states have 70 percent of their caseloads in work – would remedy the current problem of TANF recipients being “locked into poverty.” He also stated that the integration of programs – facilitated by the President’s “super waiver” provision – would better address the individual needs of recipients.

The Secretary explained the “super waiver” as a vehicle for streamlining program requirements currently under the jurisdiction of various governmental departments, forming “one standard” for a uniform system. While details on the “super waiver” are still scant, it would apparently create authority for states to ask the secretaries of certain agencies to waive statutory and regulatory program requirements – provided that such waivers would be cost neutral to the federal government across programs.

Advocates are deeply concerned that providing states with the ability to make such broad, sweeping changes could result in monies being transferred from less popular programs to those with stronger constituencies on the state level. Additionally, many note that a “super waiver” provision could undermine the work of congressional appropriations and authorizing committees. In addition to the President’s proposal, the TANF bills introduced by Representative Wally Herger (R-CA) and McKeon contain “super waiver” language.

The “super waiver” provisions contained in the Herger and McKeon TANF proposals would affect the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS), with Medicaid being the only program that is specifically exempt. In addition to these agencies, the President’s proposal would grant “super waiver” authority to the secretaries of the departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It is suspected that if the “super waiver” passes, other governmental agencies could be added to those already included in the Herger and McKeon proposals when the bill reaches the Rules Committee.

The House Education and Workforce Committee is expected to mark-up TANF reauthorization legislation this month. The Senate will act more slowly, but will produce a bill before Congress adjourns in the fall. The 1996 law that created TANF expires in September.

Food and Nutrition
Income Support
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families