IMAGINE a welfare reform law that (a) contained no limit on how long a recipient could collect a monthly check, (b) allowed welfare mothers to get higher benefits by having another out-of-wedlock child, (c) required the state to establish a slew of expensive new training and counseling programs for people on welfare, yet (d) didn't actually require any recipient to ever go to work.
Oh, yes, and imagine that it also (e) threatened the jobs of countless low-income workers by bribing companies to hire welfare recipients at less than minimum wage.
You've just imagined Outside Section 252 of the 1995 Massachusetts state budget. That legislation deserves to be called a lot of things, but "welfare reform" surely isn't one of them. Which is why Governor Weld vetoed Section 252, and politely invited the Legislature to take a few deep breaths and try again.
For the House and Senate to approve a bill that will drag even more lives down into the gutter of welfare addiction was perverse. (Rather like the lobbying techniques of the welfare advocates, who dumped manure in the halls of the State House and dragged body bags into the Legislature.) But their push to override Weld's veto is worse than perverse. It's suicidal.
The governor, who turns 49 Sunday, couldn't ask for a better birthday present: an election-year showdown between Democrats who defend Clarabel Ventura-style welfare vs. Republicans who want to overhaul it.
"I pushed for tough, effective welfare reform," Weld will say from now to Election Day. "The Democrats handed me a wimpy, washed-out substitute, and when I vetoed it, they tried to override my veto. If you're as fed up with the welfare mess as I am, kick these incumbents out. Give me a Legislature I can work with and we'll really end welfare as we know it."
Then again, the biggest roadblock to hardheaded welfare reform may not be on Beacon Hill, but in the White House.
The states pay 50 percent of the costs, and suffer 100 percent of the consequences, of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the core welfare program). But the US Government calls nearly all the shots. Federal regulations cover every cog and bolt of the massive welfare machine; any state that wants to try something different has to get the federal bureaucracy's permission first. And there are few things bureaucrats hate more than waiving one of their rules.
President Clinton waxes enthusiastic on letting the states be "laboratories of democracy," free to try out alternative approaches to fixing welfare. "You know, I'm a former governor," he told the Globe last week, "so I have a different view of this than a lot of presidents have had. I strongly believe the states should have room to experiment." He cited the "15 welfare waivers, or 16" granted since he entered office as proof of his readiness to defer to the states.
But when you check the fine print (always advisable with anything Clinton says), many of those 15 or 16 waivers turn out to be for minor changes or modest pilot programs. Meanwhile, his administration is holding up at least 25 other waiver requests. For all of Clinton's happy-talk about giving the states "room to experiment," he is as bad as his predecessors when it comes to making governors jump through hoops and bark like chihuahuas just to get permission for their states to run their own affairs.
Look at what Massachusetts is being put through.
Governor Weld requested a federal waiver for his dramatic welfare proposal on March 16. (Under Weld's proposal, able-bodied AFDC recipients would get all the day care and health insurance they needed, but could only get a check by going to work.) The application ran to 40 pages, plus 30 pages of attachments; it required who-knows-how-many hours to prepare. A waiver wouldn't enact Weld's proposal into law, but it would make it possible for the Legislature to do.
It took four months for Washington to respond, and when it did, it was not with a thumbs-up from the former governor in the White House. On July 14, the US Department of Health and Human Services sent 13 single-spaced pages of "initial issues/questions" to Welfare Commissioner Joseph Gallant. It is a questionnaire designed by regulators looking for a reason to say no. Get a whiff of just one of the questions:
"54. In requesting to waive 402(g)(1)(A)(iii) (p. 22), to allow Child Care (TCC) without time limits, the State proposes the ESP (Employment Support Program) -- the family member gets AFDC benefits for 60 days, while looking for work (p. 10). During this period, will child care be provided out of IV-A (non-TCC) funds? Is this why the State has not requested a waiver from 402(g)(1)(A)(i)(I)?"
What is this niggling drivel? Is this how Clinton proposes to revamp welfare -- by flapping 402(g)(1)(A)(iii) in the face of the nation's governors? Exactly how many Clarabel Venturas are there in a 402(g)(1)(A)(iii), anyway?
Taxpayers are sick to death of welfare, and for good reason. They resent having to go to work each day so their taxes can support tens of thousands of welfare parasites who won't. While Beacon Hill obstructs serious legislation and the president blocks genuine experimentation, the public's anger rises slowly toward the boiling point. The welfare payers' revolt is coming.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)