GAO: Obama Administration Flip-Flopping on Welfare Waiver Authority

By Matt Cover | September 24, 2012 | 7:02 PM EDT

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the White House on March 23, 2010, the day Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (White House Photo/Pete Souza)

( new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had previously stated that it did not have the legal authority to waive the work requirements of welfare, precisely the opposite of what the Obama administration now claims.

The finding comes from a Sept. 19 report issued to Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) examining if there was any precedent for the Obama administration’s July announcement that it would begin issuing waivers of the work requirements for welfare.

GAO found that on seven occasions, HHS explicitly stated it did not have the legal authority to issue such waivers.

In 2001 and 2004, states formally requested waivers from HHS, citing emergency circumstances that could have prevented them from meeting the work requirements. In both of these cases, GAO found, HHS told the states it did not have the legal authority to grant the waivers.

“The Assistant Secretary for Children and Families responded to each state that he did not have authority to provide waivers,” GAO reported.

GAO also reported that three other states informally asked HHS to grant waivers and again found that in each case, HHS stated it lacked the legal authority to do so.

“To each of these states, HHS TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the formal name for welfare] program staff generally responded that the requested waiver authority was not available.”

GAO said it did not find “any evidence” that prior to July, HHS had ever claimed it could waive welfare’s work requirements.

“Based on our discussions with HHS officials and our review of HHS documents, we did not find any evidence that HHS stated that it has the authority to issue waivers related to TANF work requirements,” GAO reported.

Camp called the Obama waiver program “illegal,” saying that the administration was simply trying to undo a reform it did not like.

“This latest report from GAO confirms that since 1996 HHS has consistently held that they have no authority to waive the welfare work requirements that have been essential in moving low-income Americans from welfare checks to paychecks.

“Now this Administration is unlawfully attempting to circumvent Congress to undo a successful law that they simply don't like. However, as the report shows, a decade and a half of precedent is not on their side,” Camp said in a statement accompanying the report.

In July, HHS announced it would begin issuing waivers to the requirements that some welfare recipients work or lose benefits. In particular, it said it would allow states to come up with their own measurements for what qualifies as work and how they calculate the percentage of welfare recipients are working.

Those two measurements were the keystone of federal welfare reform passed in 1996. Under the old system, welfare recipients were also required to work, but there was no uniform measure of what counted as work, allowing states to infamously count trivial activities as work.