Two Republican governors are backing away from their expressed interest in welfare reform waivers now that Mitt Romney has made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign against President Obama.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval were among five governors who sought flexibility for the states on alternative ways to achieve the law’s goal of moving recipients from welfare to work. In July, the Obama administration offered states the opportunity to receive a waiver from the 1996 law’s work participation requirements under the condition that more recipients find jobs. If not, they said, the waivers will be denied or rescinded.
The Romney campaign, and its supportive super PACs, seized on the directive, airing multiple ads in key states, falsely accusing Obama of “gutting” the welfare law — a claim that multiple fact-checkers, and a growing roster of traditional journalists, have debunked. The Republican governors who sought the flexibility have since been backtracking.
Herbert said he wanted the waivers to be granted by Congress and not the executive branch. But he stopped short of echoing Romney’s claim that Obama is gutting the essence of the law, and championed the idea of state flexibility.
“Some of the concern was that by executive order, some things were being done that ought to, in fact, be done by Congress,” he told the Huffington Post. “So having the executive run around the Congress is not the right way to do it.”
Herbert’s office directed TPM to his official comment — a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — which is silent on his procedural objections but supportive of the policy in principle. “Utah is very proud of the comprehensive work-centered approach we take to moving adults from dependency to self-sufficiency,” he wrote. “The cornerstone of Utah’s philosophy is that all who can work should work, and that states are laboratories of innovation. Utah actively promotes these core beliefs by advocating for state and federal policies that support these principles.”
Sandoval’s office claimed his request for flexibility was not actually a request for a waiver.
“Nevada hasn’t requested a waiver and has no intention of requesting one,” his spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner told the Las Vegas Sun. “The letter was not a request for a waiver; it was a request to explore the possibilities.”
In August 2011, Sandoval’s Health and Human Services director approached the Obama administration: “Nevada is very interested in working with your staff to explore program waivers that have the potential to encourage more cooperative relationships among the state agencies engaged in economic stimulus through job creation, employment skill attainment and gainful employment activities,” wrote Michael Willden. “Nevada is also interested in exploring performance measures that endure program accountability and also increase the probability of families becoming self-sufficient by providing meaningful data as to the services or combination of services with best outcomes.”
In response to an inquiry by TPM, a Sandoval aide said in an email, “We have not researched Romney’s push to repeal the HHS action, so we’re not able to provide you more.”
States have long sought relief from the 1996 measure’s strict workforce participation requirements and time limits for welfare recipients. In 2005, Romney was one of 29 Republican governors wrote a letter to Congress seeking even more leniency in waiver authority from the welfare law than the Obama administration granted last month.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.