Campaign 2000: The Welfare Reform Debate That Wasn't

The emergence of an uneasy consensus on welfare reform is one of the underreported developments of last fall's election campaign. Readers of news reports of that campaign may have concluded that the country was so hopelessly divided on almost everything that it could not possibly come together. Yet, remarkably, on the biggest social initiative of the past 10 years or even longer, there was no debate last fall between Al Gore and George Bush.

One could easily imagine such a debate, with Gore favoring scaling back some of what he might see as more draconian aspects of welfare reform and Bush seconding a suggestion made last year by House Republicans to begin scaling back some work supports, particularly the earned income tax credit. But Gore chose not to make that argument, and Bush pointedly disagreed with the House Republicans' suggestion. Beyond that, there wasn't much discussion about welfare reform. I think that silence is worth noting.

When I first got involved in welfare reform in the House of Representatives back in the 1980s, precious few Republicans were involved at all in the issues of poverty and welfare. Most of the debate on the conservative side had been basically bumper-sticker quality—with much talk about welfare queens and pouring money down a rat hole. The questions for conservatives at that time were how to get people off the welfare rolls and how to cut spending and save money. In response, Democrats on the left defended the existing system and tried to counter the conservative bumper stickers.

Both parties have changed quite a bit since then, but more has changed on the Republican side. The debate began to become meaningful with the emergence of a Republican group with a serious interest in reducing poverty, not just in reducing welfare spending. Today a lot of Republicans and conservatives are genuinely interested in reducing poverty and honestly believe that welfare reform can be for the betterment of poor people and children.

What will happen next in welfare reform? That we have gone through a presidential political campaign without the parties' debating this issue tells me that major change in welfare is not forthcoming. That doesn't mean there won't be a lot of debate when the 1996 law comes up for reauthorization in 2002. It doesn't mean there aren't going to be some changes. It doesn't mean there won't be some substantial disagreements between liberals and conservatives in Congress.

Certainly the specter of recession is going to be raised repeatedly, and rightly, by people on the left. I think that's appropriate. Who can be completely comfortable about what will happen when the economy takes a downturn? What happens to kids, what happens to poor people? I think that's going to be the driving force rhetorically from the left. It's probably going to result in an assault on time limits—but in the end, I don't think the assault will prevail.

From the right, from the conservative side, there will certainly be a tendency to look at that big pot of money that we are spending—both the block grant and the work supports—and say, "You know, this is succeeding so well, we don't need to spend so much money on it anymore. Let's find some money out of those accounts to put to the military buildup or a tax cut or something else we might want to do." That might be a slightly greater risk. I hope that doesn't happen and will do what I can to make sure that it doesn't.

My judgment is that we will continue the welfare reform experiment—which is what this really is. We will move toward perfecting this policy, not reversing it. After all, it's a policy for which everybody took credit last fall. In a campaign in which the Republicans said that the past eight years were squandered and the Democrats spoke disparagingly of a do-nothing Republican Congress, welfare reform was one policy for which everybody claimed credit. Maybe people on both the right and the left felt a little uneasy when they gave the speeches taking that credit because there were aspects of the new law they weren't so sure about. But believe me, everybody in Congress went back home and said that one of the great things we did these last several years was to reform welfare. They all have a stake in not undoing it now.