Welfare Reform for the Rich

Phil Gramm's America Lacks Compassion

Last Friday, Texas Senator Phil Gramm became the first Republican officially to throw his hat into the Presidential ring. Backed by the Texas A & M band, Gramm declared his candidacy with a particularly appropriate phrase: "With a love for America and a desire to make her right again..."

Since November, Gramm has positioned himself at the head of the socalled "revolution" that gave Republicans control of Congress. Republican legislators have turned that election into a mandate for a remarkable assault on big government, seeking to roll back everything from welfare to federal health and safety regulations and to balance the budget through various constitutional contortions. Through it all, Republicans have claimed to hear, like divine inspiration, the clear voice of the American people, instructing them to dismantle the bloated apparatus of the federal government piece by piece.

Gramm is neither Speaker of the House nor majority leader of the Senate. His place in the revolution's vanguard was secured by virtue of his role as the True Believer, a title he alone can claim among his presidential rivals. He would have voters see him as the staunch ideologue whose time has finally come, an uncompromising conservative even in the darkest days of Democratic hegemony. In announcing his candidacy, Gramm played up his co-authorship of the ill-fated Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction plan, as well as his unbending resistance to the Clinton health-care plan. In these first moments of the campaign, Gramm is presenting his impeccable conservative credentials to an electorate that has proven itself enamored of them.

What does Gramm's America look like? To put it another way, who are Phil Gramm's Americans? Gramm's rhetoric, and his legislative record, make it clear that answering this question is no simple matter. In the wake of the November elections, President Clinton declared that the voters had sent a message: they want a smaller government, one that "is not a burden to them, but that empowers them." In reply, Gramm remarked, "Government doesn't empower you. Freedom empowers you!" But Gramm's statement contains a central irony: freedom only empowers those who are personally, economically and socially capable of empowering themselves.

As a Senate intern this summer, I saw Gramm's principles in action on an issue that put his high-minded rhetoric of freedom in its proper context. As the Senate debated the appropriations bill for the Department of Justice, one of the funding items was the Legal Services Corporation, an agency that provides legal assistance to the poor. Gramm offered a "very, very simple" amendment that would bar any Legal Services money from funding any lawsuit "that would have the effect of nullifying any provision of Federal or State law which seeks to reform welfare."

Gramm is a great partisan of "welfare reform," which in his view consists of asking those who are "riding in the wagon of welfare" to "get out...and help the rest of us pull." The senator was up in arms about a New Jersey case in which several organizations, using Legal Services funds, had sued the state on behalf of welfare recipients, charging that New Jersey's attempts at "welfare reform" were arbitrary, discriminatory and punitive. Among other provisions, the New Jersey law would deny an increase in welfare payments for any child conceived while the mother was on welfare.

Gramm made it clear that the New Jersey law was exactly his idea of reform. Still, he insisted, that was beside the point; the point was that federal funds should not be used to "circumvent the will of the American people" in court. To Gramm, it seemed an eminently logical proposition; as another senator put it, "You shouldn't use government money to sue the Government."

If Gramm had simply come out and said that he believed the poor did not have a right to challenge welfare-reform law in court, that the poor had no legal recourse and should simply bend to the will of the majority, his position would at least have been consistent. Instead, Gramm declared, "Poor people have the right to be represented, I agree, but not at taxpayer expense." While granting that the poor were entitled to go to court to challenge the fairness of a law, Gramm said, "Let them do it with their own money"--a statement so ironic one wonders how the senator managed to keep a straight face.

Gramm observed that opponents of his amendment were confusing "legal" with "political" rights. Legal rights, to Gramm, include going to court to settle benefit disputes and the like under State and Federal laws. Political rights are those that might actually result in those laws being changed; it was those rights that Gramm argued the taxpayers should not fund. In fact, Gramm pointed out, the political process had already run its course in the New Jersey legislature; the poor no longer had a say in the matter. Political rights were irrelevant.

It seemed that Gramm had failed to remember, as Senator Paul Wellstone pointed out, that "the law" eventually comes down to the Constitution, and that "legal rights" must include every-one's rights under the Constitution, whether that means upholding or over-turning other state and federal laws.

Ted Kennedy came to the floor to cite several cases, supported by Legal Services, in which welfare laws had been judged discriminatory or otherwise unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Legal Services, in defending its client's legal rights to protection under the Constitution, had the political impact of overturning other laws. Now, Gramm wants to end those activities, which would severely restrict Legal Services' ability to serve what even Gramm has granted was their clients' due.

Eventually, the amendment failed. But in whose name had Gramm fought with such indignation? Throughout the debate, Gramm invoked the figure of the embattled common taxpayer, the "real, honest, flesh-and-blood working person in America." In his arguments, Gramm had a sharp distinction between the taxpayers, who "pull the wagon," and the rest, who ride it: "I am always amazed at how much passion there is for the people that are benefiting from government and how little passion there is for the people that are paying for the government."

In Gramm's rhetoric, the government is a machine that siphons off the earnings of working people and distributes it to those on welfare; he seems to believe both that taxpayers gain no benefit from government and that the poor, who "benefit" from government, should not be represented in the decisions of that government. For Gramm, the U.S. government and all the rights it is charged with defending should be accessible only to those who can pay for it; it's a free country, he seems to say, but free yourself with your own money.

This early skirmish in the Republican revolution shows that Phil Gramm's America is a nation of people who think that only they pay for government, and who resent the fact that their money benefits anyone else. It was that America Gramm addressed when he declared--at his $4.1 million fundraiser--"We are one victory away from getting our money back."

Gramm's appeal is about self-righteous selfishness; those who can't afford their rights are left out in the cold. But at the head of the revolution, Gramm thinks his message will strike a nerve--and he may be right. A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans support a balanced-budget amendment; that percentage dropped by more than half when it was pointed out that Social Security--one of those ways, invisible in Gramm's rhetoric, that government benefits all those who pay for it--might have to be cut to balance the budget. Gramm knows the score: after thundering away at those who "ride the wagon on welfare," he acknowledged to reporters that he would not tamper with Social Security to cut the deficit.

How else would Gramm save your money? In his speech, he said he would "stop building prisons like Holiday Inns" and instead, push for vigorous use of the death penalty. In the final analysis, that's Phil Gramm's answer to the spirit of the moment: we'll get our money back, no matter how may people we have to kill to do it.