Welfare reform has been touted by Bill Clinton as one of the great achievements of his administration. But hold on a minute. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich says it’s one of his major successes as speaker of the House. Rick Santorum, whose bid for the Republican presidential nomination has been resuscitated by the Iowa Caucuses, even claims to have been an author of the landmark welfare-to-work legislation.
With all those claiming paternity, I’m reminded of the proverb: “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”
Unfortunately, the name of former U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, who represented South Florida in Congress for 26 years, never is mentioned by those seeking credit for welfare reform. Yet, the gavel used in 1996 by Speaker Gingrich to signal passage of the measure in the House of Representatives hangs on Shaw’s wall.
Hey, guys. How about giving some credit where credit is due and at least make passing reference to Shaw, a person at least as responsible as any of you for one of the most important pieces of social legislation in the last half century?
Expecting politicians running for president, or burnishing their presidential legacy, to focus the spotlight on anyone but themselves may be asking too much, so I went directly to Shaw to try to put things in perspective. Clinton? Gingrich? Santorum? Who’s right?
“They all are,” Shaw told me, “but no one can claim exclusivity, including me. What they ought to be doing is using welfare reform as an example of how they were able to work with others to get things done.”
The welfare reform saga began early in Shaw’s congressional tenure when he was appointed to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. As a junior member, subcommittee assignments were limited for him, and he chose Human Resources.
“Democrats wanted to get on that subcommittee, but most Republicans didn’t,” he said. “Republicans talked about reforming welfare, but they didn’t want to do all the things necessary to put together a bill.”
Not so Shaw, who with Ways and Means staff member Ron Haskins began in earnest to craft the legislation needed to turn welfare reform into reality. Among other things, Shaw presided over hearings that sought input from governors concerning what was working, and not working, in their states. They included GOP stalwarts such as Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, but also Democrats, including Florida’s Lawton Chiles and a fellow named Clinton from Arkansas.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton promised to reform welfare, but his enthusiasm waned after the election. In 1993, Santorum took Shaw’s position as ranking member of the Human Resources subcommittee, with Shaw instead concentrating much of his energy on the Trade subcommittee. According to Shaw, Santorum did a good job nurturing the measure and keeping it alive.
In 1994, Gingrich included welfare reform in his “Contract with America.” The contract, a stroke of political genius, resulted in the GOP capturing control of both houses of Congress. Santorum that year was elected to the Senate, and Shaw assumed the Human Resources subcommittee chairmanship, again making him the point man for welfare reform.
Clinton vetoed the legislation twice, but when GOP standard bearer Bob Dole made it an issue in the 1996 presidential campaign, Clinton decided to get on board.
A piece of legislation, however, is only as good as the will to implement it, and Shaw gives the Clinton administration great credit in this regard. He singles out for praise Donna Shalala, then-Health and Human Services Secretary and currently the president of the University of Miami: “She fought me tooth and nail, but once the legislation passed, she did everything she could to make it work.”
There’s a moral in this story that should be heeded during this time of divisive politicking and divided government: When men and women in power are willing to talk to each other, rather than just shout at each other, great things can be accomplished for the nation and its citizens.
He currently writes for the Sun-Sentinel and other South Florida publications on a freelance basis, and is a frequent guest on local radio and television shows. He also is a lecturer for the Lifelong Learning Institute of Nova Southeastern University.