GOP stifles states on welfare reform

January 30, 2003|By Benjamin L. Cardin

AS A former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, I was always sympathetic when my Republican colleagues in Congress spoke of the importance of empowering state and local governments to design programs specifically for their communities.

But now that Republicans have taken control of Congress and the White House, they no longer seem very interested in the goal of promoting state flexibility. In fact, their new mantra seems to be replacing liberal micromanagement with conservative micromanagement.

This new Republican doctrine is primarily focused on restricting states from expanding services, protections and eligibility to needy Americans. In short, the only discretion left to the states is whether to reduce assistance even more than the reductions prescribed by Washington. Such a policy is neither flexible nor compassionate.

An example of this philosophy is President Bush's welfare proposal. The president appears poised to once again put forth a plan forcing states to double the work requirement for mothers with very young children. It also would restrict the ability of states to provide education and training for welfare recipients, impose up to an $11 billion unfunded mandate on the states, and prevent states from using their welfare block grants to help legal immigrants.

The thrust of Mr. Bush's proposal would undermine the 1996 welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton and once lauded by conservatives as landmark legislation. In fact, 41 out of 47 states surveyed by the National Governors Association said the Bush proposal would require "fundamental" changes to their welfare-to-work programs.

Governors, mayors and state legislators want the flexibility to decide the best method to get welfare recipients into wage-paying employment, but the president's plan severely restricts their options. For example, under the Bush proposal, a single mother working 20 hours a week as a nursing assistant and attending classes for another 20 hours a week - after the first three months - would not have any of the education hours count toward her work requirement.

There are certainly many other examples of Republicans seeking to reduce state and local discretion in designing and operating their own programs.

In December, the Bush administration announced its intent to overturn a regulation that allows states the option of providing unemployment compensation to parents taking unpaid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Last year, House Republicans also proposed pre-empting state and local laws that prohibit religious discrimination in the workplace.

It appears that Republicans are hesitant to even give states the freedom and flexibility to promote family-friendly policies or prevent employment discrimination.

The federal government must always demand results and fairness for any taxpayer funds sent to the states, but it also should provide the flexibility needed to craft responses to each community's needs. In the past, we have heard Republicans proclaim this creed of state flexibility. But today their new motto seems to be "Washington knows best."

Benjamin L. Cardin, who represents Maryland's 3rd Congressional District in the House of Representatives, is the leading Democrat on the Human Resources Subcommittee, which oversees the welfare program.

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