Obama Administration Guts Historic Welfare Reform Bill; Networks Newscasts Ignore Story

One week ago, the Obama/Sebelius Health & Human Services issued a memo that, for all intents and purposes, eviscerates the central provision of the historic 1996 welfare reform bill: work requirements for welfare recipients.

"The new policy guts the federal work requirements that were the foundation of the reform law. The Obama directive bludgeons the letter and intent of the actual reform legislation," Heritage Foundation senior fellow Robert Rector argued in a July 12 Foundry blog post. Four days later, Heritage legal experts Todd Gaziano and Robert Alt added that the administration's changes are, in their judgment, illegal (emphases mine):

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a General Counsel and legal staff to ensure that the agency’s actions are lawful. Did they take the day off last Thursday?

We have to question whether the department lawyers were consulted at all about the “Information Memorandum” issued by HHS last Thursday that invites states to come up with creative excuses (aka “demonstration projects”) to suspend the work requirements in the welfare reform law.

Given the clear, unambiguous, and binding legal prohibition for that type of waiver, if they were consulted, the lawyers involved were embarrassingly careless in approving language that is in direct violation of federal law. Because there is no legal basis for permitting the waivers at issue, HHS needs to follow the law and withdraw the illegal Memorandum.

Last Thursday, our colleagues Robert Rector and Kiki Bradley were among the first to expose the Obama Administration’s plan—through the HHS Memorandum—to gut the work requirement that was an essential foundation of the landmark welfare reform law of 1996. They explained one reason why the waiver authority cited by HHS does not allow the Secretary to waive the key work requirements. It turns out there is an even clearer, and express, legal prohibition in the 1996 statute against what HHS seems to want to do.

In short, the HHS action that would be highly questionable when you read the authorities cited by HHS becomes completely indefensible when you examine all the relevant law.

As Rector and Bradley noted, the waiver authority cited in the HHS Memorandum only authorizes the Secretary of HHS to suspend certain reporting requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) law, not the underlying work requirements in section 407 of the act, now codified in 42 U.S.C. § 607.

In layman's terms, the policy memo concludes that the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), in this case Kathleen Sebelius, has the authority to waive the welfare reform law's work requirements, but the legislation in question does NOT give such waiver authority to the HHS secretary at all. The administration's new position is one counter to the express meaning of the law, not in line with it.

Despite these concerns, however, neither the network evening newscasts -- ABC's World News, the CBS Evening news, nor NBC's Nightly News -- nor the morning programs -- ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, nor NBC's Today -- covered the development and the subsequent criticism from conservatives.

Matthew Streit, the director of Heritage's Broadcast Services division informed NewsBusters that Fox News Channel's Special Report and Fox Business Network's The Willis Report did pick up on the HHS memo and Heritage's response to it.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters