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Kaus, Kerry and Welfare Reform

Mickey Kaus has decided to shift his anti-Kerry crusade from he's-a-loser (a view which I admit, I had shared) to he's-an-unreconstructed-liberal. And of course the issue of the day (as most days) is welfare reform, and the almost-forgotten debate over that bill in 1996.

Kaus complains that Kerry told Bob Schieffer, "I have fought hard for responsible welfare reform. I voted for welfare reform." Kaus notes that Kerry did vote for final passage of the bill, but "in the Kabuki procedures of the Senate, the final passage vote is often for show, and that was the case with welfare reform. The final vote allowed senators who needed to be seen as supportive of the bill--especially senators up for reelection like Kerry--to go on record as voting for it" while actually trying to gut it. The real test was on amendments, Kaus say, and he notes three amendments Kerry voted for: the Daschle amendment, which was the main Democratic substitute, a Biden-Specter substitute, and a Breaux amendment that would have allowed states to continue to provide non-cash benefits to kids in families that had run out their two-year time limit.

If Kaus thinks that aligning himself with Senator Breaux on an amendment that passed in a Republican-controlled Senate makes Kerry a liberal, he's welcome to that delusion. Kaus says he followed the issue very closely at the time, and promises more research to find out whether these amendments would have "gutted" welfare reform. I'll do his work for him -- I spent most of this time perched quietly on the staff bench at the edge of the Senate floor, so I know exactly how this went down. Kerry was not one of the Democrats who wanted to defeat or gut the bill. (My boss, Senator Bradley, was.)

Kaus is certainly correct that Kerry was not an active leader on welfare reform, so "I fought hard for..." is glib Senatorial hyperbole -- but he's hardly the first to use that phrase. Kerry did offer an amendment on the floor, which passed, requiring states that showed an increase in child poverty to develop a plan for corrective action. That was a good idea, one of a number of Democratic efforts to put the goal of reducing child poverty, not just welfare caseloads, into the bill.

On the amendments Kaus cites: The Daschle alternative was known as the "Work First" bill. It had work requirements that were stricter than the Republican bill, and it was more honest about the funds states would need to implement Work First. Actual opponents of welfare reform, like Moynihan and Bradley, thought it did very little to improve on the Republican bill, but voted for it. I don't recall exactly what the Biden-Specter alternative did, but all the actual opponents of welfare reform voted against it, which should tell Kaus something. (There was an alternative that would have preserved the individual entitlement to AFDC, which really just means that funding for states would have continued to come as a match rather than a block grant, drafted by Moynihan, but he never even offered it for a vote.) The Breaux amendment was one of those little things that humanized the bill, and has contributed to what I would now consider the partial success of welfare reform.

What happened on the Senate floor in 1996 was not, as Kaus describes it, a meaningless final vote. What happened was that, after these early amendments, the bill's sponsors made every effort to get as many Democrats to vote for it as possible, by making substantive changes to win their votes. This might have been politically motivated -- just dare Clinton to veto a bill that passed 74-24 -- or it might have been a sincere effort to reach the broadest consensus, the exact opposite of what happens today, where the Republicans seem determined to squeak everything through by the narrowest votes because it means they've made the fewest compromises. In the final round of negotiations, they added hundreds of millions of dollars for child care, made some of the rules more sensible, and accepted amendments such as Kerry's and even some of Wellstone's that moderated the bill, in order to get most of the moderate Democrats to support it. Kerry can take credit that he was a modest part of the group that proposed and made their votes contingent on the kind of changes that improved the bill enough that it could be called "responsible welfare reform," and not just a block grant. (The bill that later came back from the House-Senate conference, which Kerry also voted for and that Clinton signed, dropped many of those improvements and added some horrible stuff such as the first funding for "abstinence-only education".)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 29, 2004 | Permalink


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Congress is very imcompetent at social engineering. If any of us really cared, we would get Congress out of the social engineering business and just tax the rich to even the playing field.

I am certain that Conregessional efforts to social engineer poverty just creates more of it. Comgress members who maintain the fiction that Congress can deliver complex social engineering programs are lunatics.

Voters beware.

Posted by: Matt Young | Jan 30, 2004 4:54:48 AM

I encourage any and all such exposing of Mickey Kaus as a mindless boob.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 30, 2004 2:45:49 PM

Kaus has no incentive to be factually accurate or even logically coherent. He works for Slate.

Posted by: Asymmetric Inflammation | Jan 30, 2004 4:19:22 PM


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