It's not every day that lawmakers in Washington discuss strip clubs -- at least not on the legislative floor.
House Republicans don't want Uncle Sam paying for any more lap dances.A bill that GOP leaders are bringing to the House floor Wednesday would require states to prevent welfare recipients from accessing or spending their benefits at strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores.
Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) is leading the charge on the issue, insisting that benefits under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are being distributed through state-issued debit cards, and those cards are then being used to purchase illicit goods and services.
Boustany called the problem "pretty rampant," though the evidence to support this is elusive, and his bill would slash TANF aid to states that failed to implement the new federal regulations. (Conservative Republicans hate it when Washington imposes new mandates on states, except when they don't.)
The measure, called the "Welfare Integrity Now for Children and Families Act," passed easily yesterday, on a 395 to 27 vote.
Arguably more interesting, though, is why House Republicans decided to pursue this in the first place.
Boustany's claims notwithstanding, there's little evidence pointing to widespread misuse of funds. The principal piece of evidence was this two-year-old Los Angeles Times article, which reported that some California casinos accepted TANF debit cards, but 0.4% of welfare funds went to gambling, and 0.001% went to "adult entertainment."
Within days of the article's publication, California changed its standards for use of TANF funds and imposed the restrictions Congress is now seeking.
With that in mind, why are GOP lawmakers in Washington bothering with this? Melissa Boteach had a terrific report, exploring this question in detail.
With unemployment at 8.5 percent and more than one in three Americans struggling to get by on low incomes, do conservatives really believe that taxpayer dollars used for strip clubs, liquor stores, or casinos is a pressing national crisis? For most House conservatives, the answer is probably no. Do they see the political value of forcing such a vote in an election year? You bet!Putting politics above policy in this crass way is unfortunate and cynical. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program has experienced benefit cuts of more than 20 percent, after adjusting for inflation, even as the Great Recession and the slow economic recovery have caused elevated levels of unemployment and poverty. Many low-income workers on TANF are unable to access the child care they need to make work possible and ultimately end up spending nearly half their income on care for their children. Low-wage workers are constantly facing the threat of a layoff because more than 80 percent lack access to a single paid sick day to take care of themselves, a sick kid, or an elderly relative.And the big vote on TANF is about strip clubs?This vote represents yet another instance in the creeping trend of conservatives to demonize the poor -- and then threaten anyone who votes against the legislation with supporting "welfare spending" for strip club admissions. The tactic enables conservatives to imply that tough economic circumstances somehow make poor people delinquent and criminally inclined.
The point isn't to defend misuse of welfare funds, which is obviously inappropriate. Rather, the point is GOP lawmakers are picking a fight over "welfare" in an election year, tackling a problem that doesn't appear to exist. Yesterday wasn't an example of responsible legislating; it was a cheap stunt.