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Two Welfare Programs Approved by Committee

Continuing Congress’s consideration of welfare reauthorization, the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 24 approved two bills reauthorizing programs under its jurisdiction. The bills approved were based on legislation (H.R. 4122) sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI). That measure, which would reauthorize the abstinence education and Transitional Medical Assistance (TMA) programs, was broken into two pieces for the committee’s mark-up. Both measures will be incorporated into legislation approved by the House Ways and Means and Education and the Workforce Committees prior to floor consideration.

The first measure, approved by a vote of 35-17, would reauthorize for five years the abstinence-only education program created under the 1996 welfare law (P.L. 104-193). Under current law, a mandatory $50 million has been allocated in each of FY1998 through FY2002 for abstinence-only education programs. Programs eligible to receive funding must meet eight criteria stipulated in the law, and states are required to contribute $3 for every $4 provided by the federal government. Known as Title V, the abstinence-only education program is operated through the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant.

The second measure, approved by voice vote and with little debate, would reauthorize for one year the TMA program. TMA provides temporary health care coverage to individuals and families moving off welfare who are not eligible for Medicaid.

The committee engaged in spirited debate over the abstinence-only education program, and rejected three amendments during its four-hour mark-up. The first amendment, offered by Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), would have allowed states to use Title V funding to educate “those who are currently sexually active or at risk of sexual activity about methods to reduce unintended pregnancy or other health risks.” After a lengthy debate, the amendment was defeated, 22-32.

Arguing that states need flexibility to implement abstinence programs as they see fit, Rep. Harman said, “Between 1992 and 1994, California instituted an abstinence-only education program across the state. Evidence showed that it didn’t work.” She continued, “Under a Republican governor, the state has not funded abstinence-only programs,” adding that California is the only state that does not receive Title V funding and as a result has forfeited roughly $30 million “because they felt those funds would not be useful.”

Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-FL) said the amendment would “undermine the bill.” Speaking to the issue of state flexibility, he said that states already have the flexibility to opt out of the programs and decline federal reimbursement. “If a state doesn’t want to participate, they don’t have to,” he said. “Why would we change a good program?”

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) agreed, and added, “I believe that you reach different kids in different ways….This bill provides money to groups that are reaching kids one kid at a time.”

Rep. Michael Doyle (D-PA) stated that while he supported the abstinence-only education program, he would also support the Harman amendment. “As a pro-life Democrat, nothing in here bothers me….It doesn’t prevent abstinence education programs. It just gives states flexibility.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) agreed: “If the goal is to prevent teen pregnancy, we should be willing to roll out all of the information.”

The second amendment, offered by Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), would have required programs receiving Title V funding to use information that is medically and scientifically accurate. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 19-31. She argued that the amendment was necessary because “many groups are trying to use terror tactics to keep teens from having sex,” adding, “The most important ally we have with our children is trust.”

Republicans opposed the amendment, saying that it was technically flawed. “The language is purposely vague,” argued Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ). Committee Chair Billy Tauzin (R-LA) said the amendment is “drafted in such a way that the funds are not going to be used for abstinence education programs.” The third amendment, offered by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), would have allowed Title V funding to be used for programs that have been shown to reduce teen pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. “There are tried and true research methods that can be used to evaluate whether programs work,” Rep. Waxman argued. The amendment was defeated, 20-32.

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