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Wanton Destructiveness

Representative Rob Simmons announced yesterday that he would switch his vote and vote against the Budget Reconciliation conference report when it comes back to the House for a revote the day after the State of the Union. This is huge news, an indication that the all-out press led by the Emergency Campaign for American Priorities is not in vain. (Although the same cannot be said for Rep. Simmons" bid to add two more years to his doomed political career.)

There are so many terrible things in the budget bill that it"s hard to say what provision is the worst, in terms of consequences. But to my mind, there is one provision that symbolizes all the pointless, wanton, ignorant destructiveness of the last five years: the $4.9 billion in cuts to child support enforcement.

Child support enforcement is one of the great success stories of modern government, and it was a completely bipartisan and cross-ideological success story. The major improvements in child support enforcement were passed in the 1996 welfare reform bill, and both supporters and opponents of that bill praised them. Liberals and conservatives were able to agree that every child should have at least the financial support of both parents even if they live separately, that both parents had responsibilities, and that single parents would be more likely to escape the trap of welfare dependency if they were getting help from the other parent.

A dozen years ago, enforcement of child support was a disaster. Every state had its own system, its own support guidelines, and a different agency in charge. (They still do.) Interstate enforcement -- enforcing an order from one state on a parent who lives in another -- was a complete mess. States were supposed to develop new computer systems with federal money but they were years behind in doing so. A rule of thumb at the time was that a non-custodial parent who moved to a different state and changed jobs every couple of years could easily avoid ever having his wages garnished for child support. As a result less than 18% of child support payments were actually made.

The movement to fix this system begins in the mid-1980s. A bipartisan Commission on Children chaired by Senator Rockefeller made some recommendations, and then in 1988, a commission on interstate enforcement was created, which four years later recommended several hundred changes, many very complex, some very simple, such as trying to establish a child"s paternity at birth rather than years later in a court. The bill creating the commission was introduced by Senator Bradley, so when I worked for him later, I was responsible for getting legislation introduced based on the recommendations, and then getting most of them included in the welfare reform bill of 1996. (That"s why I feel so strongly about this, but I should acknowledge that these weren"t my ideas and I was not then or now a real expert. I was more or less the temporary caretaker of a set of very important fixes that had been worked out over years and would continue for years after.) This wasn"t an ideological fight; it was just a matter of hard, hard work to figure out how to structure the incentives and requirements so that parents got the support they were due.

The most complex changes had to do with the structure of the financial relationship between the feds and the state government. There is an obvious federal interest here, because of the link to the welfare program and because of the problem of interstate enforcement. A system of matching payments and performance incentives to states was developed in order to force state investment in child support enforcement which, studies show, save government $4 for every dollar spent on enforcement.

And it worked. In 2004, 51% of child support was paid. From 18% to 51% is a huge transformation. I doubt that anyone in the mid-1990s would have predicted that. One study showed that improved child support enforcement was responsible for a quarter of the reduction in welfare caseloads. See this report from the Center on Law and Social Policy for a summary of the success.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cuts in the incentive payments to states will cost families $8.4 billion in child support. Even that estimate assumes that states will make up half of the federal money they will lose; if they don"t, children will lose twice as much in child support.

The era of bipartisan collaboration on basic problems like child support or health care is long gone. I"ve gotten used to that. What I can"t grasp is why this Republican majority wants to take some of the basic accomplishments of that era, accomplishments that took a decade or more of serious work, and casually toss them aside.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 27, 2006 | Permalink


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"What I can"t grasp is why this Republican majority wants to take some of the basic accomplishments of that era, accomplishments that took a decade or more of serious work, and casually toss them aside."

I suppose the cheap response is, "Because they're evil?"

The complicated -- truly nuanced and detailed and even-handed reply, boiled down to three words -- would be, "Because they're evil."

Okay, I admit, "evil" is a loaded term. What they're DOING is evil. But you're asking about motivation. I suspect that a lot of it is simple sloth: half or more of the GOP caucus hasn't clue-one what they're doing when they vote on these things. And the ones that do? There appears to be a weird kind of maliciousness run amok among the conservatives and GOP generally that boils down to, "What the Democrats did is bad. ANYTHING they approved of is bad. And so we must undo it."

As insane and simplistic as that seems, it was amply on display when the ShrubReich first took over in 2001. I cannot now quote the specific citations, but at the time I read some actual quotes that pretty much conveyed that belief. If Clinton did it, the Shrubites were going to do the absolute opposite. They seemed to genuinely believe the rightwing hate machine noise: Clinton, they thought, was the absolute epitome of corruption and evil, and everything he did needed to be undone. EVERYTHING.

This just seems to be another extension of that.

Or, maybe the reason is at once simpler and more barbaric: they don't CARE what the bottom-line economics of it are. All they care is about cutting $4.9 billion in immediate outlays so they can shovel that much more toward (1) tax cuts for the rich; (2) Hallibuton contracts; and, or (3) election year politics, with claims that they're making the "hard choices" necessary to balance the budget.

In other words: because they're evil.

Posted by: Roger Keeling | Jan 27, 2006 2:48:44 PM

Some of them, Roget, are also stupid.

Posted by: Meteor Blades | Jan 27, 2006 4:50:04 PM

...erk ... I know you're not a thesaurus.

Posted by: Meteor Blades | Jan 27, 2006 4:51:06 PM

No, it's not about not caring, it's deliberate. It's the same reason that Katrina was such a disaster: Anything that makes government look useful to people runs against their agenda. They want the public to hate the government as much as they do, so they'll support endless tax cuts. In their minds, the only good government program is subsidies for the rich. Programs like this one, that directly benefit ordinary people, are anathema to them.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, RN, PhD | Jan 27, 2006 7:36:36 PM

Not to be somewhat flip but in addition I'd add:

1st critical GOP constituency: the ultra-rich. Cut things we're not interested in, like child support enforcement, to benefit the things we like, i.e.--our tax cuts.

2nd critical GOP constituency: less-well-educated divorced white males. Hmm, who do you think the principle beneficiary would be when you slash child support enforcement?

For my money, this "what's in it for me" attitude trumps even the Norquist "starve the beast" conspiracy that well characterizes today's GOP.

PS: like your blog, Mark. Still framing the issues as clearly as you did back in the day.

Posted by: tyrone | Jan 27, 2006 8:55:01 PM

Meteor Blades:

That's okay about my name. But, I think I mentioned that half the GOP members of Congress don't have clue-one what they're doing ... which is another way of saying "stupidity."

By the way, today (1/30/06) The American Prospect online had this tidbit by Sam Rosenfeld:


Subscription-only CQ alerts us to the GOP's secret plan to win the midterms:
Lawmakers still haven’t finished fighting last year’s budget battles but are preparing this week for the fiscal 2007 budget process, which is expected to include further belt-tightening even in the charged atmosphere of election-year politicking.

With President Bush pledging to again hold the line on non-security domestic discretionary spending in the plan he will deliver Feb. 6, lawmakers are bracing for another year of tight appropriations and the prospect of another savings package aimed at entitlement programs including Medicare and Medicaid…

(Senate Budget Committee Chairman) Gregg maintains that Republicans should make cutting the budget their “cause celebre” and view it as a positive, not a negative factor for their election campaigns.

* * * *

So what can I say? That looks a LOT like Reason #3 that I cited up above. In other words, yet another version of "evil."

Here's the link to TAPPED: http://www.prospect.org/weblog/. Sorry, but I've never figured out where TAPPED keeps the Permalinks, otherwise I'd post that here. The piece in question was posted 1/30/06 at 1:43 p.m.

Posted by: Roger Keeling | Jan 30, 2006 2:44:42 PM

Wow Best site I liked

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