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House Panel Approves Final Piece of Welfare Overhaul

March 09, 1995|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House Ways and Means Committee completed action Wednesday on the Republicans' welfare reform plan, a sweeping effort to link benefits for the poor with social objectives such as work and marriage and to transfer policy-making power to the states.

The last piece of the GOP plan was passed by a 22-11 vote, with one Democrat joining the committee's 21 Republicans.

"This witnesses the demise of the welfare state," declared Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.), holding up the committee's 238-page bill.

The Ways and Means measure will be joined with companion bills passed by two other House committees. The omnibus bill will be debated on the House floor later this month, according to the Republican timetable.

Although the omnibus bill is considered likely to clear the House, it awaits a less certain fate in the Senate, which has already buried some other House-passed measures.

The Ways and Means bill, the most far-reaching of the three welfare measures, would limit families to five years of cash welfare benefits and require them to work after receiving benefits for two years. It would cut off assistance for legal immigrants and give states more freedom to tailor welfare programs to their own specifications.

The second measure in the House welfare package was approved in the early-morning hours Wednesday by the Agriculture Committee, which voted to end the entitlement of poor people to food stamps and to require them to work in order to qualify for benefits.

A third panel, the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, voted two weeks ago to replace the federal school lunch program with lump-sum grants to the states. Its bill would also reduce spending on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which aids 6 million people, and combine federal child-care programs into one grant for states.

The total welfare reform package would save taxpayers at least $50 billion over five years, Archer said, while improving the lives of poor children by forcing parents to get jobs and discouraging people from having babies they cannot afford to support.

Committee Democrats expressed regret that they had lost the chance to forge a gentler version of welfare reform, such as the one proposed last year by President Clinton. His plan would have spent billions more on child care and on job training and placement.

"It's so sad we didn't do it last year," said Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.). "Then we would have had real welfare reform. This is not real welfare reform."

Clinton on Tuesday told a small group of columnists that he would veto a welfare reform bill if he believed that it would be "unfair to children and weak on work and parental responsibility."

But Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee that drafted the central provisions of the GOP proposal, predicted that Clinton would not reject the Republican plan because a veto would be "nothing less than an endorsement of the existing system."

"He had two years to do it with his boys," Shaw said, referring to the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in 1993 and 1994. "There was a total breakdown of leadership on the Democratic side."

The legislation passed by the Agriculture Committee earlier Wednesday would require for the first time that able-bodied Americans who are age 18 to 50 and without dependent children work or lose food stamps after 90 days.

It would also repeal the current formula that ensures that food stamp benefits increase at the same rate as grocery prices. Instead, it would limit annual increases in benefits to 2%.

One Democrat suggested that food stamps be renamed the "gruel-stamp program." Another introduced an amendment to change the name of the committee's legislation to the "The Food Stamp and Commodity Reduction to Make Americans Hungry Act."

Under the Ways and Means legislation, young unwed mothers would be eligible for cash benefits in the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program only when they reached age 18. States would be given significant financial incentives for reducing their rates of out-of-wedlock births.

Another provision of the Ways and Means bill would transfer authority over foster care and adoption programs for abused and neglected children, sending it from the federal government to the states. The measure would also sharply reduce the Supplemental Security Income program by making most disabled children ineligible and cutting off drug and alcohol users.

Under the plan, cash welfare, foster care and adoption services, child-care and school lunch programs no longer would guarantee benefits to everyone who meets standards set by the federal government. Instead, states would be provided with block grants and broad flexibility to determine eligibility levels and set restrictions and penalties. They could transfer up to 30% of the funds from one block grant to another.

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