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August 25, 2014 9:49 AM Blockheads

By Ed Kilgore

As someone who’s been actively hostile to the conservative pet policy rock of block grants for a good couple of decades now, these words from Kevin Drum (following a discussion of the steady downward drft of TANF funding since the enactment of welfare reform legislation in 1996) were music to my ears:

Make no mistake: this is why conservatives are so enamored of block grants. It’s not because they truly believe that states are better able to manage programs for the poor than the federal government. That’s frankly laughable. The reason they like block grants is because they know perfectly well that they’ll erode over time. That’s how you eventually drown the federal government in a bathtub.
If Paul Ryan ever seriously proposes—and wins Republican support for—a welfare reform plan that includes block grants which (a) grow with inflation and (b) adjust automatically when recessions hit, I’ll pay attention. Until then, they’re just a Trojan Horse for slowly but steadily eliminating federal programs that help the poor. After all, those tax cuts for the rich won’t fund themselves, will they?

Show me an area of the federal budget where Republicans are proposing a block grant, and I show you are governmental responsibility that Republicans hold in low regard. The formula is “block and cut” to be followed if at all possible with “dump and run.”

The sad thing is that the original idea of “block grants”—program consolidations that simply made it easier to move funds between spending categories within broad functional areas to meet local priorities—is eminently defensible. But then it became central to a long-running conservative shell-game, so Kevin or anyone else is justified in bridling at any mention of block grants. The amazing thing is that conservative wonks and pols still roll out block grant proposals regularly as though they are brilliant policy innovations. Really, most of us were not born yesterday.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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