President Obama has a long and well-documented record of opposing welfare reform. When he was a state senator in Illinois, Obama spoke from the floor against implementing President Clinton's bipartisan 1996 welfare legislation.
Obama's stimulus reversed the fiscal foundation of the 1996 bill by paying states bonuses to increase, not decrease, the number of people on their welfare rolls. This May, Obama's "Truth Team" attacked Mitt Romney for supporting welfare work requirements, another pillar of the Clinton-era reforms.
Romney has launched a television ad explaining how Obama is trying to gut welfare work requirements unilaterally, through a Health and Human Services memo issued last month. And now Obama is crying foul. He claims he is not un-reforming welfare, and that Romney supported the exact same policy when he was governor of Massachusetts. Both of Obama's claims are false.
First, as the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector detailed last month, federal law has long empowered the HHS secretary to issue waivers relating to welfare programs. The bipartisan 1996 welfare reform bill limited this authority, carving out "mandatory work requirements" as one of the items the secretary may not waive.
Obama's July HHS memo invites states to apply for waivers that change the "definitions of work activities" to better meet "the work goals" of welfare reform. In other words, the state of California could (as one state did before 1996, according to the Government Accountability Office) count Weight Watchers attendance as "work," and thus keep more people on the state's welfare rolls without making them work. This is exactly the type of administrative discretion that welfare reform was designed to prevent.
On Obama's second point, Romney did sign a letter in 2005 supporting a Senate bill -- the PRIDE Act -- that would have granted the HHS secretary authority to issue waivers related to welfare programs. Also signing the letter were many of the most conservative Republican governors in America. The PRIDE Act would have actually toughened federal work requirements, raising the mandatory participation rates for recipients within each state from 50 percent to 70 percent.
But the waiver authority that their letter asked for in no way ended welfare reform's mandatory work requirements. It had nothing to do with them. At the time, the provision was referred to as the "superwaiver," and left-wing groups attacked it as threatening low-income families' access to benefits. Its aim was to help states consolidate the running of multiple welfare programs operated by multiple federal departments (Agriculture for food stamps, Housing and Urban Development for rental assistance, Energy for heating assistance, HHS for cash welfare, etc.) without running afoul of the web of federal laws that govern them all. But the provision never became law, in part because Republican committee chairmen in Congress resisted ceding such power to the executive branch -- even after the program was negotiated down to a 10-state demonstration project.
Obama's July memo does something very different. At least in theory, it claims executive authority to let states dilute or eliminate work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which has never been done. The memo even suggests "demonstration projects" that would water it down -- such as "[p]rojects that test the impact of a comprehensive universal engagement system in lieu of certain participation rate requirements."
From Day One, Obama has relentlessly sought to expand the reach and size of the federal welfare state. He made it a key part of his stimulus bill. Romney has every right to draw a contrast with Obama on the issue and make it the centerpiece of his campaign.
An earlier version of this editorial mistakenly cited California as the state that had counted Weight Watchers toward welfare work requirements before 1996. In fact, GAO did not identify the state. We regret the error.