THE GRAND consensus on welfare reform with which the year began has wafted away. In its place you have the rather crabby 23-13 party-line vote by which the House Ways and Means Committee sent a reform bill to the floor last week. The problem is that one side has always thought that reform, once it did whatever else it had to, should make the program more generous, while the other wants to make it less so. That's precisely where the two parties have now split on the bill.
Nor does the Democratic leadership seem all that confident that it can hold its majority on this issue on the floor. Ways and Means voted to ask the Rules Committee to bar amendments if the bill is brought up by itself, and there is also talk of stuffing it into the so-called reconciliation bill expected later in the year. As now envisioned, this may also contain a tax increase, some part of the defense bill and who knows what else. You wonder if Congress will ever revert to the practice of legislating one subject at a time.
This is a good bill. Its centerpiece -- the part the Republicans like -- is a new program for both pushing and helping people to move from welfare to work. Each state would create its own array of services; the feds would pay part of the cost. The limiting factor is that the states would also have to pay part, and most of them don't want to spend much extra money on welfare, or don't have it to spend. Estimates are that this program might serve about 75,000 families a year, out of 3.7 million now on welfare.
The bill would also try to extract more child support from fathers and would make it more attractive for mothers to quit welfare for work by letting them keep more of their benefits when they start, letting them keep their Medicaid eligibility for a while and subsidizing day care. It then goes on to broaden and liberalize the underlying program. It would require states to extend benefits to families where both parents are present but the chief breadwinner is unemployed; the states are only allowed to do so now, and half don't. It would also sweeten the present matching formula for states that increase benefits, which have been allowed to lag behind inflation and have lost about a third of their purchasing power over the past 15 years. As it came from subcommittee the legislation would also have required each state by 1993 to have benefits equal to 15 percent of its median family income, adjusted for family size. But this move toward a minimum national benefit was dropped to keep the allegiance of southern Democrats, whose states would have been among the most affected.
The idea of a minimum benefit was a good one; it should have stayed in. There are likely to be other such casualties before -- or if -- a welfare reform bill acceptable to both parties is signed into law. What you're likely to have in the end is a modest new effort to move people off the rolls, together with some modest improvements in the benefit structure. That's a long way from the oratory on both sides with which this process began, but would be welcome nevertheless. The poverty rate among children in this country is now 20 percent, and children are this program's main dependents. Surely they can qualify for a bigger piece of the pie.