September 19,2012

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In Speech, ‘Fact Checking the Fact Checkers,’ Hatch Outlines How Obama Administration Undermines Welfare Work Requirements

Utah Senator says, “The motives of the Obama administration have been unexamined. The language they have used to describe their wavier scheme has been taken at face value. And, precious few have done a Fact Check, on the Fact Checkers.”

WASHINGTON – In a speech at the Heritage Foundation today, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch(R-Utah), Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, outlined the facts involving the Obama Administration’s decision to grant itself the authority to exempt states from the work requirements that were a critical element of welfare reform enacted in 1996 -- potentially opening the door for activities like bed rest, smoking cessation and exercise to be counted as a work for the purposes of complying with federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) requirements.

“For weeks on end, the Obama Administration’s spin about the impact of their Information Memorandum has been unchallenged,” said Hatch. “The motives of the Obama administration have been unexamined. The language they have used to describe their wavier scheme has been taken at face value. And, precious few have done a Fact Check, on the Fact Checkers.”

Below is Hatch’s full speech as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Jennifer for that kind introduction.  It is always a pleasure to come over here to The Heritage Foundation.  For nearly 40 years, Heritage has been leading the way when it comes to sound conservative policy reform.

And it is particularly appropriate that we are discussing welfare policy at Heritage.  The Heritage Foundation was at the forefront of the debate to reform federal welfare policy.  

Heritage paid particular attention to the importance of work requirements in welfare reform, and they have been doing yeoman’s work in explaining the threat that recent action by the Obama administration poses to that work-first ethos.

I am speaking, of course, about the Obama Administration’s recent Information Memorandum to the states, where they granted themselves the authority to waive the work requirements in welfare programs.

For all of the Fact Checkers out there, you heard that right.

The administration has, as a matter of fact, given itself the authority to waive the work requirements that were central to the successful bipartisan welfare reform of the 1990s.

And they did so, not through any change to the law establishing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, but by bureaucratic fiat.

Both the process and the substance of the Obama administration’s action are deeply problematic.

Now, before the legion of purportedly objective Fact Checkers begin Fact Checking me, let me just say that my hope here today is to turn the tables a bit.

Somebody needs to be Fact Checking the Fact Checkers. Fair is fair. What goes around, comes around.

A number of self-proclaimed Fact Checkers have criticized Republicans for concluding that this new waiver authority undermines welfare reform.  

Governor Romney’s ads on the subject have been held up for particular scrutiny — given everything from a Four Pinocchios rating to a Pants on Fire characterization.

The Fact Checkers quickly concluded that critics of the President’s proposal — including Governor Romney — were at best exaggerating, and at worst lying, about the President’s record.

I understand that the administration, and the President’s reelection campaign, were desperate to convince the press that their critics were wrong.

This is because the truth — that the administration had in fact undermined the principle embodied in welfare reform that recipients of federal assistance must work — was so politically perilous for President Obama.

One would be hard pressed to put together a panel more equipped to address the true impact of the administration’s action than the one we have here today. Mickey Kaus, Kay Hymowitz and, of course, Robert Rector have all looked at this issue closely.

And I am confident that they will help us get to the bottom of the administration’s action. Those who challenge liberal social policy share much with Ginger Rogers. She had to do everything Fred Astaire did — only backwards and in high heels.  

Given that the weight of the media and the academy is routinely going to side against those contrarians who challenge certain features of the welfare state, we just have to work that much harder to get our points across.   Fortunately, Mickey and Kay and Robert are up to the task.

And I think we are in general agreement that the Fact Checkers, in many instances, failed to do their due diligence on the administration’s actions.

These supposedly objective analysts were too quick to lean on partisan talking points — talking points generated by those who stand to lose the most if Americans determined that that the work requirements in welfare policy were substantially undermined by the administration.

Over the past several months, a great deal of misinformation has circulated regarding the July 12 Information Memorandum released by the Obama administration. Frankly, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

But I will begin with what the Obama administration claims is their primary objective for determining that they have the authority to waive welfare work requirements.   The Obama Administration has stated that they need to be able to waive the work requirements in order “to explore new ways to strengthen work requirements”

The Obama Administration has not revealed what is contemplated by the word, strengthen. These unknown new ways to strengthen work requirements do not mean limiting what counts as work to actual work or job search.

These new ways to strengthen work requirements do not mean actually requiring more people to work more. That is because, under current law, there are no restrictions if a state wants to increase work.

A state does not need a waiver to limit the number of activities that it considers work.

A state does not need a waiver to increase the required hours of work for welfare recipients.  

A state does not need a waiver to increase the number of able-bodied adults who are working in exchange for their welfare check.

So, if strengthen does not mean limiting what counts as work, and it does not mean increasing the number of people engaged for longer hours in work, then what does strengthen mean?

For guidance in answering that question, let’s look at what a state currently cannot do, while still meeting the welfare work requirements. A state does need a waiver to increase what counts as work, such as education and substance abuse treatment.  

A state does need a waiver to count a person doing less than the required hours of work related activities towards the participation rate.  

And a state does need a waiver to meet a performance measure other than a participation rate of 50 percent. Therefore, strengthen — according to the Obama administration — potentially means letting more activities count as work.

It potentially means not requiring people on welfare to have to perform those activities for as long. And it potentially means allowing for a more relaxed participation rate.

Whenever I hear the Obama Administration use the word, strengthen, I recall a scene from the movie The Princess Bride. One of the characters routinely — and inappropriately — uses the word inconceivable.

In response, his partner eventually replies: You keep using that word.  I do not think it means, what you think it means.

Either the administration is trying to pull one over on us when they say that they are strengthening work requirements by waiving them, or they are using a different edition of the dictionary over at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Furthermore, I am not aware of a single Fact Checker who has bothered to inquire what the motivation is behind this administrative action.  

There seems to be little desire on the part of the Fact Checkers to determine whether the President has said or done anything in the past indicating a personal preference for weakening welfare work requirements.

Yet as a State Senator in 1998, President Obama stated that he probably would have voted against the welfare reform passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress and signed by President Clinton.

Perhaps it is unfair to divine President Obama’s current beliefs about TANF based on his views as a State Senator. But we have more recent history to go on. TANF expired two years ago.

It has existed on a series of stop-gap extensions to keep the program going. Yet, no Fact Checker has questioned why the Obama Administration has failed to submit a reauthorization proposal to the Congress.

There has been a great deal of attention paid to what a group of Republican Governors wrote back in 2005, when the TANF programs were up for reauthorization. But I have not read a single account of what Senator Barack Obama said about the welfare provisions included in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

The welfare provisions in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act expressly set out to curtail activities that the Government Accountability Office described in an August 2005 report to Congress.

In that report, the GAO revealed that states were counting as work such activities as massage, motivational reading, and weight loss promotion.

Instead of supporting legislation to tighten up the welfare work requirements — prohibiting massage, smoking cessation, and exercise from being counted as work — Senator Obama, as well as Senator Biden, opposed the Deficit Reduction Act.

In a statement in the Congressional Record, then Senator Obama said this of the Deficit Reduction Act:

[M]any States have made great progress implementing TANF requirements and moving people from welfare to work.  But this bill deprives States of the flexibility they need to set realistic and meaningful work targets for their caseloads.

In other words, Senator Obama described efforts by Congress to prevent states from counting the activities described in the GAO report as work as depriving states of flexibility.  

Depriving the states of flexibility? Presumably the deprivation then-Senator Obama was referring to were the limits placed on the type of activities — such as bed rest and journaling — that the states had been counting as work.  

It seems fair to assume that when President Obama talks today about promoting state flexibility, he is really talking about restoring some of the activities such as bed rest and journaling that he believed were inappropriately denied to the states through the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

Now, I’m no Fact Checker myself. But if I was, that might be some interesting background material that could be used in interpreting the intent of his administration’s new policy.

So far, I have just discussed some shortcomings in the analysis of the Fact Checkers — some instances where they might have had some blinders on. But those are sins of omission.

The sins of commission — the instances where the Fact Checkers got it wrong — are even more egregious.

Again, we have an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I will begin with one of my favorite examples.  

According to Fact Check Dot Org, an ad by Governor Romney claiming that the Obama Administration has adopted “a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements,” is wrong.

And why is it wrong? Well, according to this Fact Checker — and I’m quoting now — [w]ork requirements are not simply being dropped.  States may now change the requirements — revising, adding or eliminating them.

Eliminating? You heard that correctly.  The Obama Administration is not dropping work requirements.  Oh, no.  They are merely eliminating them.  

We are definitely down the rabbit hole when the argument is that the administration is unfairly accused of dropping work requirements because they have merely given the states the authority to eliminate work requirements.

This fact check does not pass the laugh test, and in some respects it serves as an indictment of the entire enterprise.  Fact check journalism is supposed to stand outside of the partisan fray, offering objective and dispassionate analysis of politicians’ claims.

But reading this, I can only conclude that this objective fact checker is in fact bending over backward to save the administration’s bacon. Sadly, there is more.

This same Fact Check Dot Org  goes on to claim that — and I’m quoting again — [u]nder the policy, states must meet a whole new set of federal requirements in order to obtain and keep a waiver.

I would challenge Fact Check Dot Org to provide me with a list that includes this whole new set of federal requirements. If the fact checker had attempted to draft this list, the author would have discovered an essential fact.

These requirements do not exist. In a letter sent to me and Chairman Camp, the Obama Administration elaborated on their July 12 Information Memorandum.  

In that letter, they attempted to assuage our concerns, letting us know there was no need to fear that welfare work requirements would be undermined by their action.

After all, states will be required to “develop a plan,” and must make “clear progress towards that goal.”  

Color me unimpressed.Technically the states do not actually have to meet that goal — just make progress towards it.

And furthermore, according to the Information Memorandum, HHS allows itself to grant waivers based on state changes, “intended to lead to a more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.”  

So let’s be clear. The administration has not created any new federal requirements. What we have is some loosey -- goosey language about plans and progress and intentions.

That is a slightly different picture than the one painted by Fact Check Dot Org.

Additionally, the Fact Checkers have consistently failed to acknowledge the unprecedented power grab represented by the Obama Administration’s new wavier policy.

One dismissed the administration’s action as, a process foul and poor coordination with Congress.

Actually, it was a bit more than that. Consider the following, from a GAO analysis which will be released today:

Based on our discussion with HHS officials and our review of HHS documents, we did not find any evidence that HHS stated the Department has the authority to wavier TANF work requirements before the July 12, 2012 Information Memorandum.

The GAO goes on to report that in 2004, even when states specifically requested TANF waivers, the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families “responded to each state that he did not have authority to provide waivers.”

Now, call me crazy, but I think that if a Romney Administration thumbed its nose at 16 years of precedent, and the determinations by other administrations that TANF could not be waived, it would receive more exacting criticism than a blithe dismissal of it as a process foul.

 Finally, it has been a frequent refrain from the Obama Administration, echoed by the Fact Checkers, that the Obama Administration was just giving the states what they asked for.  

The implication is that the states proactively asked the Obama Administration for waivers. All the Obama Administration did was comply.

Here is how this scenario was described according to a CNN Fact Checker:

So where did the notion of a major welfare reform overhaul come from? Where it didn’t come from is Washington, but rather from Utah, Nevada, California, Connecticut and Minnesota.

These states, some with Republican governors, asked the federal government for more flexibility in how they hand out welfare dollars.  Their purpose was to spend less time on federal paperwork and more time experimenting with ways to connect welfare recipients with jobs.

The Obama administration cooperated, granting waivers to some states from some of the existing rules. The title of this fact checking piece is:  Fact Check:  Romney’s welfare claims wrong.

An appropriate follow-up would be titled:  Fact Check:  CNN Fact Check claims wrong.

To begin with, the assertion in this fact check that the Obama administration has cooperated and has already granted waivers to some states from some of the existing rules, is just factually incorrect.  

According to the GAO: As of September 6, 2012, no state has formally submitted a request for a waiver related to TANF work requirements to HHS.

Second, the narrative that states were pleading with the Obama Administration for waivers, and all the Obama Administration did was cooperate, is misleading and inaccurate.

Again, according to the GAO: Last year, some states expressed interest in TANF waivers when HHS solicited ideas on areas in which increased flexibility could lead to improved TANF outcomes.

The analysis from GAO, an organization that actually pays attentions to thing like facts presents a far different picture than the one presented by the so-called Fact Checkers.

For weeks on end, the Obama Administration’s spin about the impact of their Information Memorandum has gone unchallenged. 

The motives of the Obama administration have been unexamined. The language they have used to describe their wavier scheme has been taken at face value.

And — with the exception of the fine panelists we will now turn to — precious few have done a Fact Check, on the Fact Checkers.

Governor Romney’s campaign has said that they are not going to let their strategies and message be determined by fact checkers.

Based on what I have seen from these so-called Fact Checkers over the past few months, that makes sense to me. Thank you for letting me visit with you today. I look forward to hearing from the panel.