Welfare reform moving to center of Republican agenda


Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are eyeing sweeping legislative and regulatory changes to the country’s welfare system next year. 

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he wants to use the fast-track reconciliation process next year for entitlement reform, with a focus on promoting work and career-based education.

“We want to smooth the path from welfare to work, pull people out of poverty, pull people out of welfare,” Ryan said this week. 

President Trump is also preparing an executive order on welfare that will spell out the administration’s priorities while encouraging Congress to act.

There’s broad support in the Republican conference for changing the federal safety net to impose stricter work requirements on programs like Medicaid and food stamps. 

But Republican leaders are walking a political tightrope. If the focus of the push shifts to entitlement reform — namely, changes to Medicare and Social Security — they will likely face backlash from within their own party.

“If [entitlement reform] involves making sure that people that are on public subsidies are actually working or looking for work or getting trained for work, sure, I’m open to that sort of thing,” Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) told The Hill.

“If we’re talking about taking away benefits that senior citizens have earned, that — to me, that’s unfair to people,” MacArthur added.

Other Republican House members echoed MacArthur’s view.

“I think if we look at things like work requirements and things for able-bodied individuals, I think that’s fine, but if you look at Medicare, Social Security, I think that’d be problematic,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).

Conservatives have long argued that spending on entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security needs to be curtailed before the costs overwhelm the federal budget.

But the risk is that making those changes, especially during a midterm election year, would be touching the proverbial third rail of politics.

“In a midterm election 2023, any discussion of Social Security is likely to be off the table,” said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to protect Medicare and Social Security from cuts. He has held to that position, which has led Republicans to focus on change to other safety net programs, like food stamps and Medicaid.

Federal health officials are already encouraging states to impose work requirements on “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients. The Obama administration never approved such requirements, but Trump administration officials have made such requirements a priority.

Work requirements would essentially remake Medicaid from an insurance program into welfare — and that makes advocates of entitlement programs nervous.

“It’s all a carefully calculated strategy to stigmatize and reinforce myths about people who need to turn to Medicaid, nutrition assistance, or other public programs to make ends meet,” Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Center for American Progress’s Poverty to Prosperity Program, told The Hill in an email.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 59 percent of nondisabled adults who are under 65 years old and on Medicaid have jobs.

Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y.) told The Hill he hoped lawmakers could come together for a bipartisan solution on entitlements.

“Look, politically, it’s difficult, and I realize we’re in a polarized environment, but sticking one’s head in the sand is not a good way of solving problems,” Faso said.

But even bipartisan plans can go awry, and President Clinton’s sweeping welfare reform plan in 1996 should serve as a lesson, Vallas said. 

Clinton passed a bipartisan law that replaced a federal entitlement with grants to the states, placed a time limit on how long families could get aid and required recipients to go to work eventually.

Many liberals think the law has backfired. Rather than serving as a “springboard to work,” they say the Clinton-era reforms have simply punished poor families.

“While the program was initially hailed as a success during the booming full-employment economy of the late 1990s, the program’s failings became readily apparent in the years since,” Vallas said.  

While political obstacles remain, Republicans could be spurred into action on entitlements by the simple fact that they control both the Congress and the White House — a level of power that only comes around every so often. 

During a recent radio interview, Ryan said he’s been speaking privately with Trump, who is beginning to warm to the idea of slowing the spending growth in health-care entitlements.

“I think the president is understanding choice and competition works everywhere, especially in Medicare,” Ryan said.

Health-care entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid “are the big drivers of debt,” Ryan said, “so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements, because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”

The Republican tax bill that is speeding toward passage is expected to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt, and Republicans will be under pressure to trim spending. Democrats have voiced concerns that the legislation could lead to cuts to the social safety net. 

To be clear, no official strategy has been devised yet, and Republican members and aides have said more in-depth discussions will happen during their policy retreat in January.

The Trump administration is also seeking to put its imprint on reform efforts.

Paul Winfree, director of budget policy at the White House, told the conservative Heritage Foundation the administration has drafted an executive order on welfare that would direct federal agencies to come up with recommendations. 

Winfree said the executive order would focus on “empowering individuals and learning from state and local initiatives.”

Tags clinton welfare reform Donald Trump Donald Trump Entitlement reform John Faso Medicaid Mike Coffman Paul Ryan Paul Ryan Social programs Tom MacArthur Welfare reform
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