In the Marx Brothers movie “Horsefeathers,” Groucho Marx portrays a college president who rejects anything his board of trustees suggests. He sings:
“Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it isâ€¦I’m against it!”
It seems as though my Democratic colleagues in the Legislature must have all attended a movie night together recently, because they are singing the same song these days in Augusta about whatever Gov. Paul LePage proposes, no matter how good the idea might be.
I submit for your consideration as Exhibit A one of the governor’s welfare reform bills — L.D. 1815. The bill involves the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program, a federal block grant program administered by each of the states under rules adopted by the states. For those of us old enough to remember, the program is the successor to the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. It provides temporary assistance to needful one- and two-parent households with children.
Here’s how I look at it: If my cousin came to me saying he was down and out and in need of money, I would be inclined to help him, but I would first ask whether he had made any recent efforts to find a job. If the answer were no, I would tell him to go look for work and then come back and see me. I suspect most of us would do the same.
The concept is simple: We are all willing to help needy our relatives, friends and neighbors, but we expect them to make a genuine effort to help themselves first. That is all L.D. 1820 does — it requires someone asking for TANF benefits to apply for at least three jobs within a three-week period before looking for money from Maine taxpayers. If one is physically unable to work or the parent of a small child, the requirement would be waived. For someone who legitimately cannot find work, there would not be a delay of even a day in receiving TANF, since current law has about a 30-day wait from the date an application is filed anyway.
This idea is hardly new or unique; 19 other states, including liberal ones such as Minnesota and Maryland, plus the District of Columbia have adopted similar rules. It is just the kind of common-sense reform Democratic President Bill Clinton proposed back in the 1990s. The proposal is an acknowledgment that the safety net must be there for those who truly deserve it but not for those who are able to help themselves. It is as simple as that. In my travels around town, I have mentioned this bill to at least 20 people, and I am still looking for the first person to disagree.
Why then did every single Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee oppose this bill? It is hard to draw any conclusion other than, like Groucho Marx, they are simply opposed to anything the governor might say or do. When I ask them, they say they do not want to place “additional barriers” in the way of legitimately needy people seeking public benefits. But when is it ever wrong to asking able-bodied people to try to help themselves before they ask the rest of us for help? And how is that a “barrier” to receipt of benefits when the work search requirement doesn’t slow up the application process by a single day?
To my colleagues who oppose a simple work-search requirement, I ask what kind of a message this sends to the vast majority of people who are struggling to improve their lives through hard work and personal sacrifice and expect others to at least try to do the same?
When this bill comes up for a vote, I hope my Democratic colleagues will resist the impulse to sing Groucho’s song. Instead, when it comes time to voice any opposition, they might be better served taking a cue from a different Marx brother and remain as silent as Harpo. This bill makes sense.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, is the assistant Republican leader in the Maine Senate.