Despite their virtues, many conservative Republicans have an unfortunate habit of picking on the weak and disadvantaged, slandering the people least able to fight back. We saw a glimpse of this callousness in Mitt Romney’s disparagement of the “47 percent” who are “takers” living off the hard-working “makers.” The newly empowered GOP majority in Congress is going down the same road—targeting the millions of sick or injured Americans who receive Social Security disability payments.
This is a favorite old canard of self-righteous right-wingers. They label these unfortunate people as shiftless and suggest none too subtly that many are faking their injuries and illnesses. The GOP has been pushing this cold-hearted slander for at least thirty-five years, ever since the glorious reign of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s (who remembers Reagan’s imaginary “Welfare Queen” who drove to pick up her welfare check in a Cadillac?).
McConnell-Boehner Republicans are now reviving the Gipper’s big lie, claiming the Social Security system is in crisis because of swollen disability benefits. Allegedly to save the system, these so-called fiscal conservatives intend to cut benefits and throw out those supposedly able-bodied slackers. Once again, their facts are bogus. Never mind, their story line is concocted to arouse anti-government resentment among people who are themselves strapped for income.
This is why we need “bleeding-heart liberals”—politicians who will stand up to defend the scorned and tell the truth about the Republicans’ propaganda. This season, the country has two tough-minded senators assuming that role—Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders is ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and Brown is ranking member of the Finance Committee’s subcommittee on Social Security. They will be heard in Washington. Given broad public support, they can smash Mitch McConnell’s plot to disable and maybe destroy Social Security.
Some quick facts Senator Brown and Senator Sanders have put before their Republican colleagues: disability insurance goes to nearly 11 million Americans, including more than 2 million veterans and 1.8 million children. Like Social Security retirement, this is an insurance program that workers have paid into with their FICA deductions. Nobody gets rich on disability. The average benefit is less than $1,200 a month, and for 30 percent of beneficiaries that is their entire income. The GOP’s ploy, an accounting rule change already adopted by House Republicans, would set up the disability system for a 19 percent reduction in benefit payments, casting millions into official poverty status.
The legendary fraud that Republicans claim to bemoan is itself a giant lie. The Government Accounting Office and the Social Security’s own inspector general have both found that fraud in this program is less than 1 percent. Compare that to fraud committed by Pentagon contractors, by too-big-to-fail bankers, by auto companies concealing deadly flaws in cars, by elected politicians or by newspaper reporters.
Both Sanders and Brown make the same accusation. The alleged problem with disability funding, Senator Sanders said, is a “manufactured crisis which is part of the long-term Republican agenda of trying to cut Social Security.” Senator Brown said, “Attacking disability insurance is only the first salvo in the Republicans’ plan to attack social insurance and make harmful cuts to Social Security.” The GOP created a false shortfall for disability benefits by blocking an accounting reallocation that is so routine it has been made eleven times in the past under presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton.
But here is my question for the Washington press corps. Why aren’t reporters writing about this? Why don’t they examine the Brown and Sanders analysis and determine if their accusations are correct? Instead of writing endless dope stories about a presidential campaign in 2016 and what might happen a year from now, shouldn’t the news media be alerting people to the fight over Social Security the GOP is starting in early 2015?
The dysfunction of Washington involves the failure of major media to examine the gritty politics of issues that truly matter to citizens. Political reporters typically find these subjects boring, and reporters who cover the candidates and campaign usually don’t know that much about how government really works. Both political parties work on warping the subjects by feeding pre-tested clichés and avoiding hot-button issues. The messaging thus reduces campaigns to empty slogans and opacque generalities.
Count up all the thumb-sucker articles you have read about wannabe Republicans touring Iowa. Then count how many stories you saw about the GOP plot to gut Social Security. The answer, I suspect, is none. The media failure pretty much guarantees the vapid content of campaigns and silly debates over whose slogan is more misleading. Reporters are safe to ignore substantive governing issues (except maybe going to war in the Ukraine or bombing Iran), but governing issues are what actual people mostly care about most.
I am reminded of an earlier era when the press was less manipulated by political handlers and reporters were more aggressive about breaking stories without permission from their official sources.
When Ronald Reagan came to town back in 1981, he ran into an unexpected media buzzsaw named Spencer Rich, who was a colleague of mine at The Washington Post. A fellow Post editor dubbed Spencer Rich “the Ferret” because Spencer was a relentless digger of facts who repeatedly drove the Reagan White House nuts. His stories revealed insider details of what programs the new president intended to launch or old programs he planned to destroy. Spencer wasn’t really interested in the political horse race, but he understood the substance of government’s many parts and he did care about how government functioned. As it happens, so do ordinary citizens.
One of Spencer’s front-page exclusives revealed the Gipper’s plan to whack Social Security Disability Insurance. Republicans, he discovered, planned to denounce the liberal program as a scandal of fraud and waste. A fire storm of controversy erupted after his story appeared. The White House first denied it. Then the White House confirmed the story but said the facts were wrong. On the third or fourth day, the White House announced the program was snuffed.
This is what makes a free press so valuable to democracy—that is, if the reporters are truly free. I yearn to see a reporter with the courage to call out liars.