Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) knows something about welfare. As an 18-year-old mother, she enrolled in what was at the time called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) along with other social safety net programs that got her through and helped her rise out of poverty. “I was able to go and finish my education and training in order to become a taxpayer,” she said. “I was able to go to college. I have paid back the taxpayers tremendously for the help they gave me.”
But she worries that even fewer people will be able to get that kind of leg up if Republicans get their way. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), chairman of the House Committee on the Budget, has said that he and his fellow Republicans are leaning toward using the budget reconciliation process to reform the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), what became of AFDC after welfare reform enacted in the 1990s. Reconciliation would let them pass any revenue-neutral legislation with just 51 votes and avoid a potential Democratic filibuster while also skirting the typical way bills are considered and voted on.
In response, Moore and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) plan to send a letter to Price on Wednesday. The letter, shared exclusively with ThinkProgress, urges him not to use reconciliation to make changes to welfare or other safety net programs.
“As you know, House Republicans, through Speaker Ryan, have made a commitment to restoring regular order in this session of Congress,” they write. “Major pieces of legislation, like welfare reform, should be debated through the regular deliberative process.”
“There are some major flaws in the TANF program that we won’t be able to address unless we do it in regular order,” Moore told ThinkProgress. One problem she pointed out is that under TANF, states only get a fixed amount of federal money to run their programs, an amount that hasn’t been increased since 1996 and has lost 28 percent of its value. So if need spikes as it did during the recession, rolls can’t rise to meet it. States also have wide enough discretion over their funds that they often end up using them for other purposes, such as plugging budget holes. She also wants to see more flexibility in allowing education and training to count toward the program’s work requirements. Under the current requirements, just one year of vocational training counts and getting a GED or attending college don’t count at all.
“If they do the reconciliation process, they’ll just bake in all of the flaws of the program,” she added.
It would also block lawmakers from considering an amendment she’s offered before that has garnered bipartisan support: reforming child support. Right now, most states require any child support payments made by a noncustodial parent to a parent on welfare to go to the state and be put toward its TANF fund, rather than going straight to the parent. Moore has put forward a change that would allow those payments to be passed through. “That child support ought to go directly to a custodial parent,” she said. “That’s something that can’t be fixed through reconciliation.”
So far it’s unclear whether Republicans will definitely use this recourse, and if they do what reform would look like. But Moore has some ideas. “The reconciliation process really relies on cutting benefits, block-granting benefits,” she said. “It really relies on denying us the benefit of a Senate backstop against an egregious bill.”
And she won’t let it happen without a fight. Her experience with safety net programs is part of what motivated her to run for Congress in the first place. “I came here to fix this,” she said. “And my voice is being drowned out.”