Washington Of all the issues facing Congress this year, none offers a better opportunity for substantial and bipartisan progress than welfare reform. The landmark measure passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 is up for renewal this year. It could be a notable achievement in what threatens to be a time of bickering and frustration on other fronts.
The circumstances are propitious. Although there are serious disputes about how durable the gains of the past five years will be, no one wants to go back to the old welfare system. By linking welfare benefits to work, the new system has introduced the discipline and rewards of the mainstream economy to neighborhoods that for too long were isolated in poverty and hopelessness.
It is now being tested for the first time in a slumping economy, and so far seems to be holding up fairly well. Until the recession hit, progress was remarkable. Welfare rolls were cut by 57 percent. Earnings for single mothers rose, teen-age pregnancy declined and so did child poverty.
Not all of this can be attributed to the 1996 law; a strong economy during the 1990s and changes in tax policy, notably the expansion of the earned income tax credit, probably had as much to do with the gains as welfare reform did.
But there is general if not universal consensus that lawmakers in 2002 can build off a success, rather than search for a remedy for systemic failure, as many of them felt they were doing with last year's education reform effort.
The second advantage is that key players in both parties are accustomed to working across partisan differences. One major Democratic bill is being drafted by Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who as governor of his state was a leading player in the National Governors' Assn. effort that produced the 1996 law.
When I saw Carper the other day, the first thing he told me was that he had invited another former governor, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, to meet informally with a group of senators of both parties who, like them, are ex-governors. Thompson, during his long run as governor of Wisconsin, became perhaps the boldest welfare innovator in the country, and is now perfectly positioned to help the White House and Congress take the next steps in advancing that agenda.
It will not be easy. A threshold question for governors and legislators, most of whom face difficult budget squeezes, is whether the federal government will renew its financial commitment to welfare reform. As welfare rolls have declined, some in Congress have tried to renege on the $16.5 billion the feds pledged to put annually into a block grant to the states to help pay for the changes.
That would be a mistake. The people remaining on welfare have more handicaps in finding jobs than those who left the rolls earlier. The steady federal funding has allowed states to expand the day care, transportation, counseling and job training services that enabled more and more women to find employment.
I am told that the Bush budget will call for no cutbacks or expansion in the federal payment, but it will be a battle to keep that figure from being reduced on Capitol Hill.
Other issues loom: Some liberals will try to soften the work requirement or lift the five-year limit on cash benefits the 1996 law set for most recipients. At a briefing last week, Democratic Leadership Council officials, including former Clinton White House domestic policy aide Bruce Reed, argued strongly that any such retreat would be a mistake.
Instead, they said, policy-makers should look for leverage points to bring a similar regimen to bear on fathers who are not living with or supporting their children. My own reporting in Chicago and other cities tells me that it is fundamentally unfair and demoralizing for single mothers to be nudged into the workplace while the fathers of their children hang out on street corners night and day.
Some conservatives want to earmark welfare funds for those who marry. Marriage is a good thing, and two incomes are certainly better than one, but the government has little experience as a marriage-broker. Reed and others point out that teen-age pregnancy is a serious barrier to marriage, so focusing on reducing out-of-wedlock births may be the most useful goal of federal programs.
Everyone knowledgeable on this subject recognizes the challenges in changing a welfare culture into a working culture. Most also realize that trimming welfare rolls is but one step toward the real goal of eliminating poverty and raising incomes.
But if partisan battles can be avoided, there is a chance for something good to happen.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group