Nixon scheme backfires as Democrats trump him

January 25, 1995|By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writers

If a court of inquiry tried to determine who is to blame for Social Security's out-of-control disability programs, it would turn up a rich variety of culprits: congressmen, judges, presidents, bureaucrats.

But if paternity were to be ascribed to a single individual, the accusing finger would point at President Richard M. Nixon.

The plot is quintessential Nixon. It started in 1969 when he went on television to propose what seemed a liberal scheme: The federal government should take over state welfare programs for poor families, boost their monthly payments and pour millions of dollars into job training. This was his $8.5 billion Family Assistance Plan, or FAP.

But that wasn't really Mr. Nixon's aim. According to the diary of his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, the president hoped the outlandish cost of FAP would force the Democrats in Congress to kill it -- and win him support from black leaders during a time of intense civil rights upheaval.

"The president emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is the blacks," Mr. Haldeman wrote in his recently published diaries. "Wants to be sure it's killed by Democrats and that we make big play for it, but don't let it pass, can't afford it."

The Democrats did reject most of it, but one of the plan's more modest proposals slipped through.

In his appeal to Congress, Mr. Nixon noted that states were using federal money to pay support checks to elderly and handicapped poor people who couldn't work -- and that some had such tight eligibility rules that they were denying aid to many of the nation's most needy.

And he asked the nation's lawmakers simply to pass a 16-page set of uniform rules to ensure that all disabled people were treated equally.

dTC Two Democratic titans, Rep. Wilbur D. Mills of Arkansas and Sen. Russell B. Long of Louisiana, saw the 889-page FAP plan for what it was. So they killed it, then turned his modest rule changes into a full-blown cash hand-out for the disabled poor.

With little public discussion or debate, they dubbed it Supplemental Security Income and steered it through Congress in 1972. Checks would hit constituents' mailboxes two years later, just as members of Congress were campaigning for re-election. Better still, SSI would be a tidy little program with none of the runaway growth then plaguing welfare. Or so they thought.

Mr. Mills noted that the number of elderly and handicapped in the population was always fairly constant -- a fact that had helped make the old state disability plans stable and predictable over time.

But his assumptions were wrong, something he and other members of Congress would have realized had they read the 16-page measure closely before they voted for it.

There in plain language, low-level Nixon aides and congressional staffers who actually wrote the rules had provided for payments to disadvantaged groups that were not nearly as constant or predictable as the elderly and handicapped.

"They thought they were just taking over the existing state programs," said Robert M. Ball, then-Commissioner of Social Security. "In fact, the rules and policies they voted for represented a considerably liberalized version."

The aides removed all age restrictions, opening the program to children for the first time -- an oddity in a plan that was originally created to help compensate disabled adults for lost incomes. They took out residency rules, knocking down barriers that once kept immigrants off the rolls. And they let in drug addicts and alcoholics.

"It was a rare opportunity to completely change a huge segment of national welfare policy, and we seized it," said Tom Joe, then an aide in Mr. Nixon's Health, Education and Welfare Department.

"It was all there in black and white," he said. "If they didn't read it, whose problem is that? It wasn't like we sneaked it by them."

The result was that Congress had created a social program capable of explosive growth. All it would take was a rise in the birth rate, a surge in immigration or a drug crisis -- all of which would soon occur.

Said Mr. Ball: "The potential for public outrage was always there. What has happened since then doesn't surprise any of us who have watched this thing play out over the years."

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