Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. (WOMENSENEWS)–Finally, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin made a decision. He will take the job directing Health and Human Services, the nation’s largest civilian bureaucracy, leaving behind the job he’s held for 14 years as the nation’s longest-serving governor.

He will be in charge of the department which, along with Justice, is the most coveted by conservatives (and progressives) because of its influence on issues affecting women, children, families, the elderly and currently poor people–from health care and reproductive rights to welfare.

Thompson presided over what is considered the nation’s most successful experiment in welfare reform, and one of its most radical, radical because he promised to end welfare completely. Aided by a booming economy he also was willing to spend money on key services–job training, transportation and child care–necessary to help get women and children off welfare.

The jury is still out on the ultimate success of Thompson’s approach to federally mandated welfare reform with its five-year lifetime cap on benefits. And, the cooling of an economy that permitted such necessary spending on social services may bode ill for future efforts to help people get off welfare for good and sustain themselves with durable jobs. The current five-year authorization for what is now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, will be up for renewal this year and already women’s advocates and others are gearing up for a fight to reform welfare reform.

Thompson, an effective political operator in his own state, did not leap at the chance to manage the vast Health and Human Services bureaucracy where all kinds if political pressures would be brought to bear on him. The department is steeped in regulation and charged with some of the toughest briefs in America: continuing welfare reform, overseeing reproductive services for currently poor women and overseeing Social Security and Medicare.

A Pro-lifer, Thompson Draws Fire on Abortion Rights, Women’s Issues

For weeks, Thompson seemed to be playing out every possible scenario, including saying that he’d prefer Transportation. President-elect George W. Bush and his transition team were clearly vexed. If this wasn’t exactly the usual script for a high-profile appointment, Thompson might yet have a few more surprises up his sleeve. The governor finally did strike the right note Friday when he thanked Bush for the nomination, saying:

“The issues that were prominent on President-elect Bush’s agenda are issues that, predominantly, the Department of Health and Human Services will help him tackle. … I appreciate the confidence that he is showing in me today.”

Besides being sometimes jarringly outspoken, Thompson defies political convention in other ways. His appointment is widely seen as payback to the conservative Republican base for helping put Bush in the White House. The fact that Thompson is a pro-lifer is particularly important to conservatives.

Bush must install a pro-lifer at the Department of Health and Human Services, the cornerstone of a Republican “family values” agenda, according to political observers. To do otherwise would inflame the conservative base of the party, which supported Bush during the campaign but remained quiet at his less than full-throated anti-abortion declamations.

Not surprising, Thompson, a Roman Catholic, immediately drew fire from national feminist and abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women. “We are going to fight on John Ashcroft (former Missouri Senator and Bush’s appointee for Attorney General) and we’re going to fight on Tommy Thompson,” said Patricia Ireland of NOW.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America quickly issued a statement opposing Thompson’s confirmation. “Gov. Tommy Thompson opposes a woman’s fundamental right to choose and has a track record of policy actions that limit access to the full range of reproductive health care services. Planned Parenthood will oppose his nomination as the next Secretary of Health and Human Services,” declared President Gloria Feldt. “Our activists will do everything in their power to prevent the approval of his appointment.”

Tomorrow: Thompson’s record in his home state on choice and welfare.

Ruth Conniff is Washington editor of the Progressive Magazine.