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Conservatives are taking a big risk throwing a hissy fit over the new HHS state waiver initiative to experiment with welfare-to-work methods.

Charging President Obama with scheming to "gut" welfare reform's mission of moving aid recipients into the workforce is the usual baseless nonsense. The initial announcement itself clearly explains that the waivers from federal requirements are so states can try "demonstration projects" geared toward "improving employment outcomes" which will need " a federally-approved evaluation plan." Further, "failure to meet performance targets" would lead to "termination of the waivers and demonstration project."

Complaining about the circumvention of Congress may have some merit, though HHS released yesterday a thorough explanation of their legal reasoning. If conservatives want to take HHS to court, a judge can sort it out.

But what I don't understand is, if conservatives think that the current law doesn't allow for state experimentation to develop innovative welfare-to-work solutions, why don't they get busy passing a law that does?

Don't conservatives always attack liberals for clinging to federal control at all costs, no matter how effective the program, no matter how much innovation is being suffocated?

Because the fact is: federal welfare reform isn't working, and we could use some innovation right about now.

Whatever success the original welfare-to-work law may have had when job openings were more plentiful (and that success is highly debatable) stringent work requirements are clearly a bust when job openings are scarce.

You can't move from welfare to work when there isn't work. And that's where welfare reform's federal rigidity has proven cruel.

As The New York Times reported in April, "recent studies have found that as many as one in every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid — roughly four million women and children."

The paper interviewed one family headed by single mom whose aid had been cut off because of welfare reform's time limits. It's not pretty:

The boy worries about homelessness, but his younger sisters, 9 and 10, see an upside in scavenging.

“It’s kind of fun because you get to look through the trash,” one of the girls said.

“And you get to play in the park a little while before you go home,” her sister agreed.

You might think that someone serious about making reform work, liberal or conservative, would look at that report and say: what should we do now to make the law better? What should we do to make the law work when jobs are hard to get?

Yet conservatives in Congress have done nothing.

And when HHS tries something limited -- it can't get rid of the time limits on aid, for example -- that is squarely in line with supposed conservative belief in using states as laboratories of reform, conservative lawmakers attack it on legal technicalities, instead of making new law to put to rest any confusion.

Or worse. Conservative columnist Dick Morris -- who claims direct involvement in the 1996 welfare reform law while serving President Clinton -- brazenly quotes the HHS directive out of context to charge the agency with gutting the work requirement:

The regs say that “vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs” “count as well” in meeting the basic condition that recipients work in order to receive welfare benefits. The Congress specifically prohibited the use of education or training to fulfill the requirement…

…then-Senate Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) was particularly suspicious that future HHS secretaries might dilute the work requirement, just as the administration has done. He worked overtime with counsel to make sure that education and training would not be used to substitute for the work provision. “I don’t want anyone going to a truck drivers school that advertises on a matchbook cover and avoiding work,” he told me. Now the administration has done just what Lott feared and the act prohibited.

First, Morris isn't accurately characterizing current law.

"Vocational educational training" is explicitly listed as a legitimate "work activity" though it's capped at 12 months, as is, "job skills training, "education directly related to employment" and "study leading to a certificate of general equivalence" albeit for a limited number of hours per week.

Nor does Morris properly explain the new "regs."

HHS did not decree that all limitations are removed from vocational education. It suggested as an "example" of a possible pilot, "[p]rojects that test systematically extending the period in which vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs count toward participation rates … to determine through evaluation whether a program that allows for longer periods in certain activities improves employment outcomes."

So the whole point would be to test whether additional vocational education "improves employment outcomes" and if it didn't, the pilot would be scrapped.

Maybe 12 months of vocational education isn't enough time for someone to learn a new trade. Maybe the current federal requirement is too arbitrary. Why not run a test and find out if there's a better way?

It's about learning what works, not basing rigid federal rules on knee-jerk conclusions, as conservatives are now advocating.

This isn't the first time conservatives have abandoned their previous support for states as laboratories of reform.

There's this thing known as "ObamaCare" which is primarily based on the principle of state flexibility.

Further, President Obama has offered to speed up the ability of states to receive health reform waivers, so they can test alternate approaches to expanding coverage and reducing cost. Conservatives have responded with silence.

Conservatives have a choice. They can work with President Obama and show that they are serious about using states to innovate policy solutions. Or they can prove that they are not serious at all.

As of now, they have two strikes.

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