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Hold off on reform

President Clinton and the Republican Congress appear close to striking a bad deal on welfare reform. But let's be clear: The fight no longer is about revamping the welfare system. It is about the president and the Republicans trying to score political points at the expense of the poor.

An indication of the ground shift among Democrats on the issue is Clinton's willingness to sign a bill ending the six-decade-old federal guarantee to help the poor, something Democrats would have considered unthinkable not so long ago. Vice President Al Gore said Sunday "that particular feature of the current system (the entitlement to help) has always been a little bit overstated in its importance."

What a rotten cop-out. The needy in this country deserve some assurance of help from their government. That doesn't mean they should be allowed to exist on the dole all their lives. The current welfare system needs reform because it encourages just that. It is a system that pays for illegitimate children and penalizes preservation of the family. About two-thirds of welfare recipients are children.

Clinton campaigned in 1992 on "ending welfare as we know it." He so badly wants credit for carrying through on that promise that he apparently is willing give away a lot that he held sacred not so long ago.

The question now is whether he will have enough fortitude and compassion to oppose the Republican welfare bill's assault on the food stamp program. Overall, the House bill would save an estimated $60-billion in welfare spending over six years. Of that, $28.4-billion comes from food stamps and would be one of the biggest cuts in the history of the program. Healthy welfare recipients between ages 18 and 50 would be able to get food stamps for only three months unless they work at least 20 hours a week or are in a work program.

So far, the White House hasn't ruled out limits on food stamps. The president's major concerns with the GOP welfare package are that it would prohibit legal immigrants from getting benefits their first five years in this country and would cut off non-monetary vouchers meant to provide for children whose families have exhausted their benefits.

Though Clinton finds these parts of the Republican welfare reform unacceptable, Gore said Monday he believed that a compromise bill could be fashioned from the House and Senate versions that would be acceptable to the president. The House bill was approved last week; the Senate could act as early as today on a similar measure.

Congress wants to turn the entitlement to welfare into block grants to states, which would then design their own programs. How humanely each state treats its poor, in general, would not be a concern of the federal government. A lifetime limit of five years on welfare payments to any family would be imposed. Every head of a family on welfare would be required to have a job within two years or lose benefits.

There is nothing wrong with requiring able-bodied people to go to work if they have child-care assistance and health care, and if jobs are available. Putting welfare recipients to work so that they can provide for themselves should be the basis of any reform.

But the Congressional Budget Office said most states would not be able to find the jobs needed and would just accept a penalty of the loss of a small percentage of their block grants. So the states will lose a little money while the needy will lose their benefits and not have jobs.

The best thing that could come out of the welfare debate at this point is for the White House and the Congress to agree to a moratorium on welfare reform until after the November elections. If that is not possible, the president should at least try to protect the food stamp program, which helps feed about a tenth of the population, including many working poor.