House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany (R-LA), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced legislation to prevent the Administration from implementing proposed new regulations intended to update child support provisions.  The legislation was announced along with tough talk about “dead-beat dads” in a press release that had some of the rhetoric last expressed during the welfare reform debates of the 1990s.  Each member was especially critical of the proposed regulations as a usurpation of congressional authority.  The last major changes in child support were taken as part of the TANF reauthorization with the most significant changes enacted as part of that 1996 law.  In fact the child support provisions were arguably the most popular part of the 1996 creation of TANF.

There have been some smaller adjustments since 1996 but nothing as significant.  The Republican leaders expressed outrage at the proposed regulations but there has been almost no interest by either side in reauthorizing the TANF block grant since it last expired in 2010.  Congress has enacted a series of partial yearly or monthly extensions usually as part of budget extensions.

In announcing the proposed child support rule last November, 2014 the Administration said the rule

“makes changes to strengthen the Child Support Enforcement program and update current practices in order to increase regular, on-time payments to families, increase the number of noncustodial parents working and supporting their children, and reduce the accumulation of unpaid child support arrears. These changes remove regulatory barriers to cost-effective approaches for improving enforcement consistent with the current knowledge and practices in the field, and informed by many successful state-led innovations…given that three-fourths of child support payments are collected by employers through income withholding, this proposed rule standardizes and streamlines payment processing so that employers are not unduly burdened by this otherwise highly effective support enforcement tool. The rule also removes outdated barriers to electronic communication and document management, updating existing child support regulations which frequently limit methods of storing or communicating information to a written or paper format.” 

The Administration also highlighted an extensive set of consultations with state, local and tribal governments before publishing the NPRM.

In announcing the legislation Congressman Boustany said,

“This president thinks he can use his pen and phone to make sweeping policy changes without legislation, but it is Congress’ role to determine child support policy, not the administration’s. The president’s rule could potentially let delinquent parents off the hook when we should be focused on structuring these important programs to promote strong families.”

Senator Hatch said,

 “This legislation is necessary to reaffirm Congress’ role in legislating social welfare policy …Last year the administration issued a proposed rule that, if made final in its current form, would make it easier for non-custodial parents to evade paying child support—a move that could potentially force some American families to go on welfare. Deadbeat parents, not hardworking taxpayers, should be held accountable for their financial responsibilities. Our bill will prevent the administration from going forward with a unilateral approach that bypasses the Congress yet again and undermines this key feature of welfare policy.”

Senator Cornyn echoed those comments in saying

 “While Attorney General of Texas, I fought to hold deadbeat parents responsible for paying the financial support their children deserve, and I am troubled to see President Obama go around Congress to undermine similar effort. This bill will stop the president’s unilateral action and ensure our child support laws protect innocent children and taxpayers, not absentee parents.”

In reality Congress can overturn regulations with a majority vote by both houses but the President could veto such a move and that means a two-thirds majority is needed to make the congressional action stick. An alternative would be to simply pass legislation, likely as part of a TANF reauthorization.

Congress has shown reluctance to take up a TANF reauthorization measure while the Administration has not proposed major reforms and instead attempted a state waiver in the summer of 2012. In the meantime it could be argued that TANF is more of a social services block grant in some states.  When it was created in 1996, for every 100 poor families, 68 were on AFDC cash assistance but by 2014 for every 100 poor families only 25 were receiving cash assistance under TANF.

Instead of using TANF’s $16.5 federal funds along with the required $12 billion state funds, the block grant has turned into a flexible fund for a range of services and in some states very little on cash assistance.

In 2013 when total federal and state required funds were examined only 30 percent of the $29 billion was spent on cash assistance.  Some states such as Arizona spent zero on assistance in 2013, while others like Arkansas spent 8 percent but that strategy stretches to even big states such as Texas which spent only 15 percent of its total $821 million in state and federal TANF on assistance ($130 million).  While child care has been a big beneficiary of the TANF spending, an increasing portion is being allocated for a range of services including child welfare.  While TANF provides the potential for flexible funds some of these TANF child welfare dollars are going toward foster care, some adoption services and kinship care subsidies.