Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spare a dime? Paying for government that helps millions -- July 28, 2011 column


Maybe the question should be who in America doesn’t get a break from Uncle Sam.

It’s not just the fat cats, Big Oil and General Electric that get special indulgences. The generous uncle makes life sweeter for ordinary folk too, although few even realize it.

Sixty percent of people who take the home mortgage deduction on their income tax returns say they haven’t used a government social program. Forty-four percent of Social Security recipients deny they’ve received any benefit as do about 40 percent of Medicare recipients, according to a study by Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler.

A review of the role of government is in order -- before lobbyists swarm Capitol Hill to “help” Congress make program cuts totaling hundreds of billions of dollars. Remember: We’ve seen only overall framework numbers – not specific spending cuts. Those decisions will be made later – trust us, lawmakers say.

Here’s a stunning stat: The federal government sends out 70 million checks a month, says President Obama. No, it’s closer actually to 80 million, says Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Even 80 million doesn’t begin to define the government’s scope. The Washington Post figured that in all some 211.8 million checks were payable -- in June alone.

The Post’s analysis of who gets the 80 million checks, or electronic payments, found the largest group was Social Security recipients – 56 million. The disabled, veterans, federal workers and retirees received payments as did non-defense contractors, railroad retirees, coal miners with black lung, IRS vendors and taxpayers receiving refunds from the IRS.

Besides those checks are 100 million Medicare payments to doctors, hospitals, labs and other providers, more than 21 million households receiving food stamps, 6.4 million active and retired defense personnel , and 1.6 million defense travel and other invoices. Medicaid, the health program for the poor and elderly run by states, wasn’t on the Post’s list, but the Census Bureau reported that there were 58 million Medicaid beneficiaries in 2008.

Everybody assumes the cuts will affect someone else, lop off waste and fraud, hit the less deserving. Nobody wants to go back to the days when getting old meant living in poverty and sickness.

But constitutional conservatives do like to quote James Madison, who said he couldn’t lay his finger on the article of the Constitution that granted Congress the right to spend the money of constituents on “objects of benevolence.”

Madison was talking about aid to French refugees from what’s now Haiti – not about medical care or benefits to seniors. But tea partiers and others who think government should shrink to the limited powers explicitly granted in the Constitution seize on his statement as vindication for ending Social Security as we know it and dismantling safety net programs. Even Obama said Social Security and Medicare were on the table. Everybody says changes won’t touch anyone 55 and older.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas., a presidential hopeful, contends that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are all unconstitutional because the Constitution doesn’t specifically call for social insurance programs. He discounts the 1937 Supreme Court ruling that found Social Security constitutional.

Critics of government would like to forget that the Constitution also says government was established to promote the general welfare. They say liberals have misconstrued the phrase.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt cited the “general welfare” in June 1934 when he proposed a new social insurance program that would help shield people from the “hazards and vicissitudes of life.”

“Fear and worry based on unknown danger contribute to social unrest and economic demoralization,” he wrote. “If, as our Constitution tells us, our federal government was established among other things ‘to promote the general welfare,’ it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends.”

These days the angry talk in Washington is more about getting political advantage in 2012 than promoting welfare for generations to come. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds fast to his declaration that his chief job is to limit Obama to one term.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the role of Congress is to thwart a president’s future or that the president’s role is step aside and keep his collar and cuffs clean for his re-election bid.

Unfortunately, neither this president nor congressional leaders are likely to say, as Roosevelt did, “Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women and children of the nation first.” Millions who rely on Uncle Sam face uncertainty.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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