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Obama’s Palace Guard

How media fact checkers made themselves of service to the president in the welfare reform debate

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Bill Clinton’s address to the Democratic convention is widely seen as a pivotal moment in President Obama’s reelection campaign. It was an undeniably powerful speech, but particularly noteworthy were his remarks about the popular and bipartisan 1996 welfare reform Clinton himself signed into law. As a result of the law, Americans were required to work as a condition of receiving welfare benefits, and could not receive benefits indefinitely. The reform shrank welfare rolls dramatically and remains wildly popular to this day.

Oddly for such a popular law—though one Barack Obama opposed—welfare reform has also been the source of a major political controversy over the last two months of campaign season. The Romney campaign has run ads accusing the Obama administration of taking actions that would seriously undermine the reform—allowing states to apply for waivers from the work requirements at the heart of the 1996 law. The Obama campaign and the media have fired back by accusing the Romney campaign of lying about what the administration did in order to foment racial tensions that would encourage working-class white voters to support Romney. Clinton’s convention remarks on the subject neatly encapsulate the Democratic narrative:

The [Obama] administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent and they could keep the waivers only if they did increase employment.

Now, did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less. .  .  .

But I am telling you, the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true.

But they keep on running ads claiming it.

You want to know why? Their campaign pollster said, “We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

When it’s presented this way, the argument seems devastating. But almost nothing Clinton said is an honest representation of what the Obama administration did to welfare’s work requirements. The Romney campaign’s accusation that Obama is gutting those requirements is accurate. It’s also telling that Clinton is leaning on allegedly authoritative and independent media fact checkers for validation when their track record of partisanship and botching complex policy issues does not inspire confidence.

Here’s what happened: On July 12, the Department of Health and Human Services released a policy document announcing it would grant waivers to states “in lieu of participation rate requirements” for welfare to work programs contained in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF—which replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program—requires of states that 30 to 40 percent of their welfare recipients engage in “work activities” for 20 to 30 hours a week. Unlike TANF, which has a narrow definition of “work” to keep the states from weaseling out of their obligations under the 1996 law, the language in the Obama administration’s memo is vague, saying among other things that HHS is “interested in testing approaches that build on existing evidence on successful strategies for improving employment outcomes.”

The same day HHS issued this document, Robert Rector—who helped draft the welfare to work requirements back in 1996 and has been called the “intellectual godfather” of welfare reform—cowrote a blog post at the Heritage Foundation, “Obama Guts Welfare Reform,” explaining how the “Obama directive bludgeons the letter and intent of the actual reform legislation.” Even though welfare rolls have dropped by 50 percent since the implementation of welfare reform, Rector pointed out that states in the past routinely tried to dodge the welfare to work requirements by defining “activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as ‘work.’ ” Rector also raised serious questions about whether HHS has the legal authority to issue such waivers. The work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform were specifically included in the legislation to make it impossible for them to be waived.

Following the HHS memo and Rector’s response, the news that the Obama administration is undermining welfare reform started to percolate in conservative circles, though the major media all but ignored the story. Members of the Obama administration “were telling the Associated Press and USA Today that it wasn’t a big deal,” Rector tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Despite getting a pass from the mainstream media, the Department of Health and Human Services must have worried that the argument they were undermining welfare reform was legitimate and would gain traction. So on July 18, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sent a letter to Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means committee, clarifying that states seeking waivers would have to “commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work.” This new requirement was not in the memo announcing the waivers, and could be reversed at the discretion of HHS.

In early August, the Romney campaign started running ads that echoed Rector’s critique, hitting the Obama administration for “gutting” welfare reform. Now that the issue was an electoral football, the media suddenly became interested. The issue was pounced on by “fact checkers” whose pride in sorting out such complex policy issues often exceeds their ability to do so. On August 7, PolitiFact gave the Romney ad its worst rating: “Pants on Fire!” The only direct source quoted in the piece was an expert at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. PolitiFact didn’t mention that HHS had felt the need to try to tighten up waiver requirements in a separate letter after the fact, let alone express suspicion about why it might have done so.

PolitiFact did link to Rector’s blog post—but only to dismiss him. “Robert Rector, a welfare expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it could ultimately allow ‘state bureaucrats’ to count activities that aren’t really work. We should point out that those concerns are at odds with the policy’s stated goal of encouraging employment.” In other words, PolitiFact said his concerns should be dismissed for no other reason than they are at odds with the Obama administration’s spin. PolitiFact didn’t even address the fact that Rector—who’s quoted in Romney’s ad—was the source of the charge the Obama administration is gutting welfare reform or that he helped write the welfare reform law. (They did reference an article Rector wrote for National Review Online and concluded that he made “a noteworthy point” when he argued that the Obama administration doesn’t have the legal authority to waive the work requirements.)

Rather than engage in any critical discussion about the issue, PolitiFact regurgitated the HHS memo for the sole purpose of making the waivers sound benign. “The memo outlined, using the jargon of a federal bureaucracy, the kinds of waivers that would be considered. It suggested projects that ‘improve collaboration with the workforce and/or post-secondary education systems’ and ‘demonstrate strategies for more effectively serving individuals with disabilities,’ to give two examples.”

Let’s take that last example of accommodating workers with disabilities—please. It’s a classic bit of bureaucratic misdirection intended to make exemptions that undercut welfare work requirements sound reasonable. “There’s no one on TANF that’s disabled. If you’re disabled, you’re on another program called Supplemental Security Income,” Rector tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD. “In TANF, you should be able to work—but what the left likes to do is to create a nebulous category of TANF recipients who are disabled with these very cloudy, fuzzy definitions, and then the state can chunk essentially an unlimited part of its [welfare] population into an exempt category. That has twofold consequences—now the state doesn’t have to do anything [to steer the exempted recipients into the workforce], but it can still maintain it has a high participation rate [in workfare programs]. If you have a 30 percent participation rate, and you exempt half the caseload, all of a sudden you can make it look like your participation rate went up.”

Which brings us to the other fantastical claim about HHS’s waivers—the idea cited by Bill Clinton that they would require more recipients to get jobs. Rector calls the idea that states would have to show a “20 percent increase in employment exits” the “oldest con game in welfare statistics. The number of employment exits [from welfare] is simply a function of the size of the caseload.” In other words, if employment exits from welfare programs are increasing, that’s usually an indication that the number of people on welfare is going up. There’s a large body of data confirming this correlation, and the reverse is also true. It was a sign of welfare reform’s success when the number of employment exits in the TANF program actually dropped. Over time, fewer people were exiting welfare because the size of America’s welfare rolls had dwindled greatly. States that wanted to have work requirements waived would understand Sebelius’s metric as an incentive to increase their welfare rolls.

The 20 percent increase in employment exits also amounts to requiring states to document a minuscule change. Writing in the Washington Post on September 6, Rector observes, “In the typical state, about 1.5 percent of the TANF caseload leaves the rolls each month because of employment. To be exempt from the federal work requirement, a state would have to raise that number to about 1.8 percent.” He goes on to note that such a small increase could be created by creative recordkeeping or slight upticks in the economy.

Rector also makes another key point that’s been absent from the debate over Obama’s changes to welfare reform. While welfare reform is hailed as “bipartisan” because it was signed into law by Bill Clinton, many Democrats and prominent policy thinkers on the left only supported the law out of political expedience, and have remained ideologically hostile to it.

This isn’t a closely guarded secret. Key personnel under Sebelius at HHS have a lengthy track record of opposing the 1996 welfare reform. Doug Steiger, for example, the deputy assistant secretary for legislation for human services at HHS, plays a significant role in shaping Obama administration welfare policy. Rector notes that Steiger used to work for Max Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, “and when TANF was going to be reauthorized in 2002, they put up a bill that manifestly had no federal work requirements in it at all. And he was very explicit that was their goal—there were to be no federal work requirements.”

In 2001, Mark Greenberg coauthored an article with former Obama White House economist Jared Bernstein on the impending reauthorization of welfare reform. “Many progressives, ourselves included, fought hard against the program that passed in 1996. We judged it too punitive and too far from the spirit of progressive reform, which would have focused less on reducing caseloads and more on both promoting employment and improving the well-being of low-income families with children,” they wrote. In the article, Greenberg and Bernstein conceded the legislation’s success—“many of our fears have not been borne out”—however, they went on to fret that welfare reform would prove harmful to the poor in the case of an economic downturn, like the one we’re in now. Mark Greenberg is currently deputy assistant secretary for policy administration for children and families at HHS, and again, in a position to be shaping welfare policy.

Then there’s Sharon Parrott, counselor to the secretary for human services policy at HHS. To mark the tenth anniversary of welfare reform in 2006, Parrott coauthored a paper for the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management titled “TANF’s Results Are More Mixed Than Is Often Understood.” Rather than the commonly held view that welfare reform’s work requirements are one of the most successful government reforms of our era, Parrott argues that because of welfare reform the “safety net for the poorest families with children has weakened dramatically.” Parrott wrote this paper when she was director of the welfare reform and income support division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a job she held until joining the Obama administration. Contain your surprise, but that’s the same liberal think tank PolitiFact went running to when they concluded Mitt Romney was lying about welfare reform.

Lastly, the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein recently reported on a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report showing that Obama had already undermined the work requirements in welfare reform before this summer. One of the provisions in the law says an able-bodied adult without dependents will only be allowed to receive food stamps for three months out of a 36-month period unless that person “works at least 20 hours a week; participates in an employment and training program for at least 20 hours per week; or participates in a [Supplemental ­Nutrition Assistance Program] ‘workfare’ program for at least 20 hours per week.” This requirement was suspended by the stimulus bill. It was supposed to be reinstated at the end of the 2010 fiscal year; Congress twice rejected the administration’s attempt to extend the exemption. However, Obama has extended the waivers. “The law grants the executive the authority to do this in states where the unemployment rate is above 10 percent or there’s a ‘lack of sufficient jobs,’ ” notes Klein. The end result is that the number of able-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps more than doubled from 1.9 million in 2008 to 3.9 million in 2010, according to the CRS report.

To date, three PolitiFact columns have been written on the main welfare reform controversy—two concluding Republicans are lying, and a third concluding that Bill Clinton was telling the truth about Sebelius’s misleading, garbage-in, garbage-out 20 percent metric. Factcheck.org and the Washington Post fact checker have also concluded that Republicans are not telling the truth about what the Obama administration did to welfare reform.

In order for “fact checkers” to swiftly, unanimously, and erroneously reach the wrong conclusion, they created a feedback loop, credulously taking at face value the statements of the Obama administration and liberal policy experts, while systematically ignoring critical sources—including the primary source for the allegation the Obama administration is gutting welfare reform.

Though they’ve selectively and dismissively quoted him, Rector says PolitiFact has spoken to him only once, and that was about a tangential matter involving Republican governors who have requested welfare waivers. He’s never been asked by any fact checking organizations “about the core argument, which is Obama gutting workfare,” he says. One wonders whether the concerted effort to ignore Rector was because of or despite his unparalleled expertise and credibility on the topic. In PolitiFact’s second and largely redundant ruling, they again go out of their way to sweep Rector under the rug: “Robert Rector, a welfare expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote that the new standards set a ‘very weak or counterproductive measure of success.’ But there’s no evidence the Obama administration has changed its philosophy. Indeed, the goal of the policy is to boost employment. The HHS letter, in several places, says only proposals from states that ‘improve employment outcomes’ will be considered.” Once again, they don’t mention a single specific argument Rector makes, and then counter his criticism by taking the Obama administration flatly at its word.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD also spoke to the leading Republican welfare policy expert in the House of Representatives, Matt Weidinger, staff director of the Ways and Means subcommittee on welfare. He said he had never been contacted by a fact checking organization. Becky Shipp, an adviser for the Senate Finance Committee, known as the premiere GOP welfare geek in the upper chamber, also reports she hasn’t been contacted by a media fact checker. Further, she tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD she went so far as to reach out to a fact checking organization to correct the record and never heard back.

Aside from their refusal to engage opposing arguments, fact checkers expressed no curiosity about why HHS felt the need to at least appear to toughen the requirements for welfare reform waivers after Rector’s initial criticisms, or whether a 20 percent increase in people exiting welfare programs is a meaningful measure of success. And they didn’t offer any historical context about the welfare reform debate or take so much as a cursory look at the people involved in welfare policy in the Obama administration, which would have cast serious doubt on the Obama administration’s motives.

The result of all this is a textbook example of how “fact checkers” corrupt political discourse. Once they all came down on the same side of the issue, the mainstream media quickly calcified the conclusion that Romney was wrong to accuse Obama of gutting welfare reform. Rather than report on the policy details, the media simply made it a campaign story and acted as a megaphone for Democratic partisans eager to charge that Republicans were inflaming racial tensions merely for arguing that the goal of welfare policy should be self-sufficiency. PolitiFact’s second ruling on the issue concludes that the Romney campaign “inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!” This is vintage PolitiFact—nothing quite says you’re committed to an unbiased evaluation of the facts like wild speculation about scurrilous motivations premised on your own misunderstanding.

Still, the false narrative that Romney is fomenting racial resentment to advance his campaign has had surprising durability. Thomas Edsall at the New York Times cited PolitiFact and Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler’s criticisms before flatly declaring the “racial overtones of Romney’s welfare ads are relatively explicit.” On September 12, the Boston Globe’s Washington bureau chief Christopher Rowland ran a nearly 1,200-word article that barely addressed the specific nature of the policy disagreement and declared “the charge is false,” citing “independent experts and media fact-checking organizations.” The bulk of the article is then devoted to quoting Democrats such as Jesse Jackson Jr. on the Romney ad’s “unspoken, racial subtext.”

And those are just a few examples from news reporters—columnists and editorialists have been positively frothing. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews got into an on-air shouting match with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus at the Republican convention. “When you start talking about work requirements,” he bellowed, “you know what game you’re playing, and everybody knows what game you’re playing: It’s a race card.” Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky marked the solemn occasion of September 11 with a column saying Romney’s “dishonest welfare ads” were proof that he “hasn’t been shy about using race,” because this line of attack was more politically effective than previous Republican attempts to “demonize slatternly women or Latinos or gay people.”

Rather than ask whether there is another side to the issue, the media have seemed interested only in demanding that the Romney campaign explain why they’ve ignored media criticisms that their welfare reform ads are untrue. After being goaded about this for nearly a month, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse finally commented: “These fact checkers come to those ads with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs. We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

Naturally, the first sentence of Newhouse’s statement was discarded when Obama himself started quoting the line in his stump speech. At a campaign stop in Char­lottes­ville, Virginia, Obama told the crowd, “One of their campaign people said, ‘We won’t have the fact-checkers dictate our campaign. We will not let the truth get in the way.’ ” One small problem—Newhouse never said, “We will not let the truth get in the way.” Oddly, no fact checking organization felt the need to weigh in and clarify that the president was lying while accusing the Romney campaign of lying.

But the president’s use of the Newhouse quote is telling. Daily Caller blogger Mickey Kaus—perhaps the sole media voice to take seriously Rector’s argument that the Obama administration is gutting welfare reform—notes that Bill Clinton told Buzzfeed, “Obama had asked him to make two modifications to [Clinton’s convention] speech—one on Medicare and one on welfare—but wouldn’t specify what they were.” Based on the fact that both Clinton and Obama quoted Newhouse, that’s a pretty good indication that Obama asked Clinton to go after Romney’s welfare reform charge because he felt he was vulnerable to the criticism. Given that Obama was publicly opposed to the 1996 welfare reform, it might help to have the guy who signed it into law defend him.

Clinton was a good soldier and covered for the president in his Democratic convention speech. Sure, it was pretty bold to have a convicted perjurer and the man who famously told America, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” make an extended argument for the Romney campaign’s dishonesty—but Clinton had the fact checkers, if not the facts, on his side.

There are some signs that Rector’s arguments are starting to be heard. A few days after the Washington Post’s publication of Rector’s September 6 op-ed titled “How Obama has gutted welfare reform,” Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler revisited the welfare reform issue. He’d already given the Romney welfare ad a rating of “four Pinocchios.” To his credit, Kessler ended up giving Bill Clinton a rating of “two Pinocchios” for his welfare reform remarks at the Democratic convention citing Sebelius’s 20 percent requirement—and for exactly the same reasons that Rector pointed out. “[O] fficials would tout that 15 percent of recipients had left the rolls, without acknowledging that the overall welfare population had grown by 20 percent,” Kessler wrote. “One former top welfare official said he could easily meet the administration’s requirements by more assiduously tracking people who found jobs but did not inform the welfare agency.”

Bizarrely, though, Kessler still stands by his original judgment of giving Romney four Pinocchios for saying Obama has gutted welfare reform. How one concludes that substituting Sebelius’s 20 percent metric for current work requirements is bogus, but still argues that this doesn’t seriously undermine welfare reform requires being comfortable with a level of cognitive dissonance that only professional “fact checkers” seem willing to tolerate.

Rector for his part is not at all surprised by the low level of diligence the media have shown in covering welfare policy. He notes that left-wing critics have always considered the 1996 welfare reform racist. A near-parodic 2002 essay by prominent left-wing journalist Barbara Ehrenreich began, “It was hard to miss the racism and misogyny that helped motivate welfare reform, which is about to come up for reauthorization by Congress. The stereotype of the welfare recipient—lazy, overweight, and endlessly fecund—had been a coded way of talking about African Americans at least since George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign.”

Rector also points out that only one side of the debate is trying to hide its views—and it’s not Republicans. Opposition to welfare reform is “so unpopular that everything [opponents] do has to be coded so that they, too, can appear to be in favor of tough work requirements,” he says. A July Rasmussen poll taken the week after HHS announced the waiver program found that 83 percent of Americans favor the idea that “those who do receive welfare benefits should be required to work,” and only 7 percent are opposed.

As for the media malpractice, Rector notes that the press didn’t report on how Democrats tried to gut welfare reform when it was up for renewal in 2002 either. And that was before “fact checkers” had arrived on the scene.

“I’ve been doing politics for over 30 years, and the mainstream media always completely ignores or distorts any issue I’ve ever written about. The ‘fact checking’ is a bizarre add-on to that distortion. It’s even a little bit worse,” Rector says. He’s deservedly dismissive of the knowledge “fact checkers” bring to the table in discussing complex policy details. “I don’t think the fact checkers have that much data on AFDC employment exits between 1980 and 1996. They’re probably a little short on that,” he says dryly.

In the end, Rector thinks he knows why he hasn’t been contacted by fact checkers. “They didn’t want the answer. .  .  . If they really wanted the answer, all they had to do was pick up the phone and I would talk to them until they would fall asleep,” he says. “I have the lowest possible expectations for these people.”

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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