A Pro-Family Measure for the Disabled

Matt Taggart is communications director for the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, a trade association representing 27 disability resource centers

It was with great pleasure that I recently watched President Bush roll out his “New Freedom Initiative.” Picking up where the Americans with Disabilities Act left off, the various proposals included in the initiative are designed to improve access for the disabled to vital technology, transportation and employment opportunities. It remains to be seen, however, whether Bush’s plan will face the same fate in Congress that other needed disability proposals have in recent years.

While Bush seems genuinely concerned about the welfare of this disenfranchised group, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and his Republican lieutenants have been obstructionists on disability issues, often flexing their procedural muscles to block vital employment-based reforms.

In 1999, Lott held up a vote on the Work Incentives Improvement Act, which eliminated the requirement that people with disabilities fall below the poverty level to be eligible for Medicare-based insurance. Although 75 senators, 24 of them Republicans, co-sponsored the bill, Lott refused to bring the measure to the floor. Fortunately, mass protests and media pressure forced Lott to buckle, and President Clinton signed the bill into law.


Lately, Lott has been up to his same tricks. In the waning hours of the 2000 congressional session, Lott blocked the Family Opportunity Act, another bill designed to raise employment among people with disabilities. He refused to allow a floor vote despite the support of 77 senators. The bill, by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), was re-introduced last week. If passed, it would alter the current Medicaid system so that parents of children with disabilities who leave welfare for work no longer sacrifice their children’s health insurance. The bill is important because few private insurers offer affordable dependent coverage for children with significant disabilities.

If, as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently testified in Congress, individual hourly productivity has been a significant factor in our nation’s economic growth, it is hard to fathom why anyone would oppose such legislation. In the short term, it would raise overall economic output by moving into jobs the parents of people with disabilities. Over the long term, it would reduce dependence on government social programs, whose growth Greenspan describes as a drag on the economy.

As Grassley testified, the bill not only had broad bipartisan support but also resonates Republican principles of self-reliance. He noted that the bill was pro-family, pro-work and pro-opportunity. It empowered parents to tend to their children and keep their families together by preventing the disheartened from giving up custody of children with special health needs or placing them in taxpayer-funded nursing homes.

With employment rates among people with disabilities at a paltry 29%, virtually the same as when the ADA was passed in 1990, it is apparent that much remains to be done in the area of disability policy. But, as Grassley said candidly, “the families that would be helped by this bill do not have the same kind of political influence and clout that other powerful interest groups have.” Maybe that’s why Lott wants to make sure parents of kids with disabilities stay penniless.

Either way, the 107th Congress should take Bush’s lead and pick up the pieces of this important measure, as well as pass the president’s reforms.