There literally might not be a single person in Washington more expert on, and more committed to, the 1996 welfare reform bill than Ron Haskins. He was the staff director of the Human Resources Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee when Republicans controlled Congress, and he was in the thick of the drafting of the legislation from top to bottom.
He thinks the charges emanating from the Romney campaign and now Newt Gingrich don't hold up at all. "On the merits, waivers are justified," Haskins told me. "The idea that the administration is going to try to overturn welfare reform is ridiculous."
Haskins had, and continues to have, some reservations about the new waiver rule at the heart of the current political controversy. "My first reaction upon hearing this was shock," said Haskins, who is now at the Brookings Institution. He quickly spoke to lawyers at Health and Human Services and was persuaded to change his mind. "It's a little tortured," he said, "but I can see how they get there. I think in a court, HHS would win."
He continues to believe that the administration should not have promulgated the new waiver "simply because of a separation of powers issue." That is, granting waivers like these that change work requirements ought to be Congress' job.
He told me that he discussed this matter with some administration officials. "And one guy in the White House said to me, 'you tried negotiating with Republicans lately?'"
Finally, he sounded amused that Republicans are getting worked up about waivers. "Republicans are the party of waivers," he said. He told me that in 2002, when he was in the Bush White House, the Bush administration proposed the idea of what they called "super-waivers," which were designed to offer flexibility to the states not just on TANF (welfare), but on "a broad range of social programs." The Bush administration pushed this, "and they were pushing on an open door with Republicans." It was the Democrats who were opposed.
So there you are. From a true expert and former Republican staffer.