“Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

— Mitt Romney campaign ad released Aug. 7, 2012

“This is a common sense reform to give governors — including some of Romney’s supporters — flexibility to live up to the goals of the welfare reform law. Romney should know: He used to support these kinds of waivers. In 2005, he joined other Republican governors in a letter to Senator Frist, urging the Senate to move quickly on ‘increased waiver authority’ for the welfare program.”

— Obama campaign defense on its Web site

When Bill Clinton signed the bill overhauling welfare 16 years ago, the 42nd president declared: “After I sign my name to this bill, welfare will no longer be a political issue. The two parties cannot attack each other over it. Politicians cannot attack poor people over it. There are no encrusted habits, systems, and failures that can be laid at the foot of someone else.”

Oops, guess he was wrong about that.

In an effort to reopen the welfare war, Mitt Romney this week began airing a tough ad that accuses President Obama of wanting to do away with the work requirements embedded in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. In effect, Romney is trying to suggest that Obama is such a left-winger that he would undo a central achievement of a Democratic icon.

People forget that Clinton’s signing of the bill — a few months before the 1996 presidential election — was highly controversial. Clinton, in his signing speech, spent almost as much time talking about the things he disliked in the GOP-crafted bill as he did about the parts he liked. Key members of his administration resigned in protest. And a young state senator in Illinois named Barack Obama also expressed his opposition.

This is a complex issue, and highly technical, which makes it ripe for spin and counterspin. Neither side necessarily conducts itself with glory here.

The Facts

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the centerpiece of the 1996 legislation, established work requirements and time-limited benefits for recipients. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services, without much fanfare, issued a memorandum saying that it was encouraging “states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment.” As part of that, the HHS secretary would consider issuing waivers to states concerning worker participation targets.

On the surface, one would think conservatives would applaud the federal government giving greater flexibility to the states. But the administration appears to have done this without much consultation with Congress, and it also asserted a novel waiver authority that took GOP lawmakers by surprise. (Essentially, work provisions are contained in section 407, which cannot be waived, but because 407 is mentioned in section 402, which allows waivers, the administration asserted waiver authority.)

The text of the memorandum states that HHS “will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals” of the legislation. “States that fail to meet interim outcome targets will be required to develop an improvement plan and can face termination of the waiver project,” the memo added.

But conservatives smelled a rat. Robert Rector, a welfare expert at the Heritage Foundation, announced that “Obama Guts Welfare Reform” — a headline featured in the Romney ad. Mickey Kaus, another welfare expert, also outlined various ways that the language in the memorandum could be used to water down work requirements, and allow welfare rolls to soar.

By contrast, left-leaning groups that have been concerned about the legislation, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, praised the move. The change “will strengthen welfare reform by giving states greater flexibility to test more effective strategies for helping recipients prepare for, find, and retain jobs — and measure their accomplishments in more meaningful ways than the current system allows,” wrote LaDonna Pavetti.

A more nuanced view comes from Ron Haskins, who was instrumental in crafting the original law. He told our colleagues at Wonkblog that the concept of the waivers is a good one, though the process used by the administration was unfair. “It might not be illegal,” he said. “But [HHS] didn’t even consult with the Republicans. They knew the spirit of the law, and they violated that.”

In other words, we are mainly talking about a process foul and poor coordination with Congress. One of the main critics of the waivers, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), conceded as much when the Salt Lake Tribune noted that the administration said it was responding to a request from the Republican governor of Hatch’s state.

“Hatch does not believe that HHS has the legal authority to waive TANF work rules,” Hatch spokesman Matt Harakal told the Tribune. “This is a completely different issue than giving states flexibility through a regular reauthorization of TANF.”

It is also important to note that no waivers have yet been issued. The Romney campaign ad goes much too far when it suggests Obama has already taken action to “drop work requirements.” The ad further states that “under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

Here, the Romney campaign is asserting an extreme interpretation of what might happen under these rules, but it is certainly not based on any specific “Obama plan.” (The Romney campaign often cries foul when Obama offers his own interpretation of still-vague Romney plans.) What really matters are the plans submitted by governors — and, as our colleague Greg Sargent noted, the two Republican governors seeking waivers issued statements saying they were not planning to weaken work requirements.

The Obama counterspin

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign claims that Romney himself sought a similar waiver when he was governor of Massachusetts, citing a 2005 letter that he signed along with other Republican governors urging that the House and Senate settle their differences and agree to an extension of the welfare law.

As far as we can determine from studying ancient history, this is a case of apples and oranges.

Yes, the letter speaks of “increased waiver authority,” but this refers to language in a pending Senate bill updating the welfare overhaul, not to a waiver of work requirements. Indeed, that bill would have increased mandatory work requirements, from 50 to 70 percent (see section 109), while at the same time adding flexibility to the states in terms of countable activities.

“I believe the approach envisioned in the PRIDE bill is an appropriate compromise between these perspectives, one which favors work and one which favors increased flexibility,” Hatch said in his statement concerning the drafting of the legislation. (Still, Rector of Heritage was no fan of the legislation either, saying the bill “will encourage self-destructive idleness among recipients.”)

Moreover, the governors were addressing their concerns through the legislative route, on a bill that at the time had bipartisan support.

So, here, the Obama campaign is seizing on similar phrasing (“waiver”) to misleadingly portray Romney as two-faced in this issue.

The Pinocchio Test

The campaigns’ descent into gotcha politics is increasingly dispiriting.

Conservatives may have legitimate concerns about the process in which the administration has approached this issue, or its legal reasoning, but that does not excuse the Romney campaign from charging that there is an “Obama plan” to weaken the law and issue welfare checks to people who do not work.

All things being equal, the Romney ad leans more toward four Pinocchios. There is something fishy about the administration’s process on this memorandum, but that does not excuse the Romney campaign’s over-the-top ad.

Four Pinocchios

(for Romney)

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is being disingenuous when it suggests Romney sought the same sort of waiver authority when he was governor, when there is little evidence that is the case. The claim that Romney sought waiver authority in 2005 is worth a solid three.

Three Pinocchios

(for Obama)

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