WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Republican leadership spent the weekend at Camp David setting the 2018 legislative agenda, and welfare reform, a topic so sensitive it is considered the “third-rail” of American politics, looks like it could become a priority in 2018.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans accompanied Trump to the presidential retreat for a weekend of strategizing and planning for the upcoming 2018 election year. Welfare reform, much to the delight of conservative voters and legislators, was included in those discussions.
Trump told reporters Saturday after meeting with leadership that welfare was something they “were looking at,” not going so far as to take a firm stance. The president made it known early in his first year in the White House that he would not touch Social Security or Medicare, but his rhetoric has changed in recent months and shows a willingness to engage with reforming welfare.
The change in Trump has signaled that for the first time in over two decades, Republicans could have a viable shot at achieving the long sought after goal of retooling welfare. No one sees the opportunity more than Ryan, who has spent the entirety of his tenure in Washington — from think tank aide to speaker — looking for the chance.
Ryan has his eyes locked in on fundamentally reshaping the American welfare state, proposing substantive changes to funding and eligibility requirements for a number of government programs, including Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a welfare program intended to help low-income families achieve self sufficiency.
“The speaker believes he has the consensus to do welfare reform,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans For Tax Reform, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This year we are looking at Medicaid, the rest of Obamacare, food stamps and TANF—welfare.”
Norquist noted the changes will include adding work requirements to programs — a provision that polls well with voters — and instituting block grants to help curb spending.
Republicans are not going to touch Medicare or Social Security out of respect to the president’s wishes, and no one in leadership or the conference is considering those topics in 2018, a high-level GOP source told TheDCNF under condition of anonymity.
Ryan has the backing of the president, a source told TheDNCF, along with some of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the nation’s capital. If powerful friends aren’t enough to press the issue, conservative fiscal policy hawks in the House are pressuring the speaker to propose legislation that will reduce the ever growing national debt, which now tops $20 trillion and counting. To put that figure in context, the national debt in 2014 cost over $145,000 per household.
Major entitlement programs cost the American taxpayer an estimated 52 cents on every tax dollar paid. Curbing some of that spending, even if Congress doesn’t touch Medicare or Social Security, could go a long way to appease congressional conservatives and could score some points with constituents in an election year.
McConnell, on the other hand, doesn’t share his colleague’s unbridled enthusiasm when it comes to reshaping the welfare state, believing it to be a non-starter within the Senate without bipartisan support. Republicans lost one seat in Alabama in a 2017 special election, narrowing their majority to 51, which means the party has to vote in lock-step to pass legislation under its reconciliation process.
Following almost an entire year of legislative gridlock, McConnell and Senate leadership have laid out a commitment to legislating in a bipartisan fashion in 2018.
“I’ve been here a while, and the only time we’ve been able to do that is on a bipartisan basis,” McConnell told reporters about welfare reform before leaving Washington for the Christmas recess. “It was Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, who raised the age of Social Security and that was before I got here, so it’s been a while.”
“The sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result,” he added.
McConnell’s number two in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, echoed the majority leader’s comments, calling it a rather “steep hill” to climb without support from Democrats.
The majority leader would rather see some bipartisan bills dealing with infrastructure and financial reforms, like addressing the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, an area that already has Democratic support. Dodd-Frank would also be a win for Republicans in both deregulation and ending an Obama-era policy.
Reforming welfare is far from a topic that would bring about bipartisanship. Democrats view most welfare programs as entitlements — vital programs that are meant to increase the standard of living for the poor. Furthermore, reforming welfare programs would not be met with applause from their constituents, leaving little reason to reach across the aisle.
The Democratic position on the issue, after a number of conversations with staffers and members, is that there is a willingness to reform some federal programs, but not to help pay for the near $1.5 trillion increase to the federal deficit the Republican tax bill levied.
“Improvements should be made to federal programs. But veiled efforts to cut critical programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security that are lifelines to millions of seniors, individuals with disabilities, and low-income families to pay for a nearly $1.5 trillion tax bill aren’t the way to do it,” Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota told TheDCNF.
Norquist, a man who was on the frontlines of helping formulate and sell the GOP tax bill, noted that Senate leadership’s pledge for bipartisanship is not a possibility with welfare reform. He said that any hold up on the part of the Senate is likely due to a problem with framing the issue.
“The head of the Senate has raised questions about whether it is doable or not (getting to 51 votes), I’m not sure from talking to people that they have actually focused sufficiently on this as welfare reform,” Norquist said. “They still keep talking about this as entitlement reform, which is something you do to make the budget work thirty years from now — which doesn’t do much for the time being.”
“I think it’s the best antidote to the ‘you don’t care about the deficit’ argument, because it both reduces the federal deficit and the debt simultaneously,” he added.
Whether or not Republicans adopt Ryan’s push to cut some welfare programs is yet to be seen, but the path to success looks paved in the House. The holdup, like the efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare in 2017, lies in the Senate.
Given the election year and a number of other must-pass legislative priorities, like an impending budget resolution and the Democrats’ Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals request, dissent in the Senate could derail welfare reform. However, Ryan could pass welfare in the House to force the issue on McConnell and Senate Republicans.
Lawmakers head back to the Capitol on Monday to begin the 2018 legislative year.