House GOP seeks to bar the use of welfare funds at strip clubs

House Republicans don’t want Uncle Sam paying for any more lap dances.

A bill that GOP leaders are bringing to the House floor Wednesday would require states to prevent welfare recipients from accessing or spending their benefits at strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores.

Republicans included the proposal in the payroll tax bill the House passed in December, and are bringing it back up for a vote separately as part of a package of bills they want included in a final agreement extending the payroll tax cut and other measures through 2012.

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Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), the chief sponsor of the strip-club loophole bill, said in an interview that the legislation was a response to press reports that recipients of benefits under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program were using state-issued debit cards containing the funds for gambling, alcohol and adult entertainment.

“It’s pretty rampant around the country,” Boustany said of the abuses. “This has really eroded the credibility of the TANF program in the eyes of the American taxpayer — a program that has been successful, by and large.

“We need to correct this problem, and that’s what the bill does,” Boustany said.

The House bill would give states two years to implement new rules. States that fail to comply could be hit with a 5 percent reduction in their block grant.

Boustany’s office cited reports of welfare abuses in eight states, totaling millions of dollars. His legislation would not reduce spending directly, but would restrict how taxpayer funds can be used.

In one well-publicized example, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2010 that California welfare recipients were able to withdraw cash from their state-issued debit cards at more than half of the casinos in the state.

“We have an obligation to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately,” Boustany said.

Melissa Boteach, who manages the anti-poverty campaign at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that while “nobody thinks TANF money should be spent at strip clubs or casinos,” the House GOP focus was misplaced, and the problem overstated.

“It’s a decoy,” she said of the legislation. “It’s not getting at the real issue of what’s going to address poverty.”

Boteach also noted that despite the country’s elevated unemployment and poverty levels, funding for the TANF program has remained flat for the last 15 years.

House Republicans are bringing Boustany’s bill to the floor under a procedure requiring a two-thirds majority to pass. They see the issue as a win-win: Either the bill’s passage increases the chances it will make it into a final payroll tax agreement, or Democrats vote it down and risk political attack from Republicans.

In the same package of bills, the House will vote on legislation to extend a salary freeze for federal employees and members of Congress and a measure reducing funding for congressional committees. The salary freeze is a central element of the House GOP proposal for offsetting the extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits.

A Democratic aide predicted that most Democrats would support the strip-club loophole bill, but said it was unclear whether the party would back the federal pay freeze.

Another Democratic aide said the GOP bill was another example of Republicans ignoring the pressing problem of job creation.

“With their constituents asking them to get to work getting people back to work, Republicans are spending another week in the House looking for a reason not to,” the aide said. “Does this bill answer the question, ‘Where is the GOP House agenda?’? The answer is no.”

Boustany noted that the House GOP payroll tax bill in December, which included the welfare provision, received some Democratic votes. And he said a Senate version of the legislation had the backing of Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus is also a chairman of the House-Senate conference committee on the payroll tax cut extension.

“To my friends across the aisle, I would simply say, you supported it before, why not support it now?” Boustany said.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the TANF program, said the Obama administration has no official position on the bill.

— Posted at 2:47 p.m. and updated at 9:29 p.m.