Clinton plays it safe on welfare reform

August 05, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's decision to sign the welfare reform bill sent to him by the Republican Congress should come as no great surprise. Once again, Bill Clinton the political pragmatist prevailed over Bill Clinton the self-proclaimed champion of the downtrodden.

For all his assurances that politics did not play a major role in the decision, the president swallowed some very punitive provisions that belie his stated concerns for the poor. He argued in his own defense that he was taking what he could get and would work later to roll back portions of the bill that would cut food stamps for working families with children and deny them and other benefits to legal immigrants.

But for practical purposes, unless the Democrats regain control of Congress in November, the chances are considered slim. Throughout the negotiations on the welfare bill, the threat of a presidential veto was always the best club Mr. Clinton held. He used it effectively to remove other features of the bill he found punitive but evidently decided he had gone as far as he could, politically.

Accepting the bill as finally written and passed by the House and Senate should effectively neutralize an issue with which the Republicans and prospective presidential nominee Bob Dole already were browbeating him. And although liberal Democrats and many in the social service community are wailing that Mr. Clinton betrayed them, they realistically have nowhere else to go with their votes in November.

What Clinton believes

Their argument that a president running as much as 20 percentage points ahead of his expected rival in the polls could afford to spend some of that political capital defending positions he believed in certainly had merit. But it did not grasp the reality that for all of Mr. Clinton's oft-expressed feelings for the pain of others, he does not reflect the old liberal view of welfare.

At the core of his 1992 campaign pledge to change "welfare as we know it" was his formula for twinning opportunity -- and compassion -- with responsibility. The bill that Congress is sending him encompasses that basic idea, by limiting welfare to five years and adding a workfare provision after two years.

In the process, it removes for millions of Americans much of the basic floor under them that has been central to social policy going back to the beginnings of the New Deal. All through the Reagan years, leading Democrats in Congress deplored holes in the "social safety net" that the Republicans insisted would protect the poor -- at less cost to the federal government. Now Mr. Clinton has acquiesced in some new holes in the net dictated by provisions designed essentially not to make welfare work better, but rather as budget-cutting devices.

Unfair to immigrants

The denial of benefits to legal immigrants is particularly unfair, as Clinton himself noted. He noted that most of these people work, pay taxes and serve in the armed forces -- arguments that could have been made to justify a veto, rather than support a limp call for repealing the punitive action sometime in the future.

It is true that legal immigrants can qualify for the denied benefits by becoming citizens, and many no doubt will. In California, earlier punitive state action against immigrants generated a flood of applications for citizenship. Mr. Clinton says he will tell the Immigration and Naturalization Service to "remove the bureaucratic roadblocks to citizenship" that now exist, but the flood is likely to intensify nationally now.

Turning much of welfare back to the states sounds good, but remember -- the reason the federal government took on so much responsibility in this area, as well as in such matters as civil rights, is that many states met their obligations so miserably. The governors, and the Republicans particularly, insist that isn't the case now. In any event, the 1996 presidential election will be well over before we find out, and Mr. Clinton has taken the safe political course on this issue between now and November.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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