IS welfare reform a moral necessity in the United States, or simply a convenient campaign issue? That question will have to be faced if Congress is to have much chance of passing sound reform legislation this year.
There is ample room for compromise in this contentious arena. Republicans and Democrats generally agree on the need for reform and on the need to build work requirements into the system.
Reforms should move people away from enervating dependency, while keeping in place a safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, especially children.
President Clinton and Senate majority leader Bob Dole, addressing the National Governors' Association this week, sketched out both differences and common ground. Mr. Clinton wants states to maintain some welfare spending of their own, in addition to money from Washington. Mr. Dole wants no-strings-attached welfare block grants to the states.
That's a significant difference, but it can be bridged by a little creative thinking.
The idea of maximum state flexibility to test different approaches to reform is championed by both the White House and the GOP leadership. Many states have already launched reforms, and the need to assess and duplicate promising efforts - like California's welfare-to-work initiative - is clear. Washington can play a useful coordinating role, but it should not be in the business of fine-tuning each state experiment.
The president's pledge to greatly shorten the approval time for waiving current federal regulations, so that states can proceed with reforms, is a useful interim step. But states should be legally bound to devote any grant money to the purposes for which it was intended: direct public assistance or preparing welfare recipients for jobs. And some kind of reserve funding, to anticipate expanded welfare rolls during economic downturns, must be built in. This is welfare reform, not elimination, and it can't be done on the cheap.
Clinton and Dole agree, also, that the sharp eligibility restrictions pushed by some conservatives in Congress to discourage illegitimate births could have unforeseen, and unfortunate, consequences. We agree.
Above all, Clinton, Dole, and other principals involved need to keep '96 presidential politics at bay long enough to arrive at productive compromises. That won't be easy, but it can be done.
And it will be much more impressive to voters than the predictable political head-butting.