About three months before the last presidential election in 2016, a Bloomberg poll revealed that, of the countless crass and cement-headed things candidate Donald Trump had said and done, the one that likely voters found most disturbing was his mocking of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski. At one of his rallies, Trump impersonated Kovaleski, who had dared to ask him challenging questions, by spazzing out and garbling his speech. It was Trump juvenile jokesterism at its peak.
In a cynically opportunistic response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump issued an executive order in August allowing employers to defer deducting payroll taxes from the paychecks of most employees for the rest of this calendar year.
I still don’t know why so many people were shocked by this. I wasn’t. Remember that this is the same guy whose idea of a real zinger is to accuse someone of having a low IQ. He’s hurled that doozy at Joe Biden, Maxine Waters, Robert De Niro, and many others.
Sadly, even Trump’s Kovaleski schtick didn’t stop enough people from voting for him. And his lowbrow humor at the expense of people with disabilities was a harbinger of things to come. In the ensuing four years, Trump and his weakling enablers on Capitol Hill have treated disabled folks with contempt. His deeds, much more than his stupid mockery, are what offend me most.
One of the first things Trump and the Republicans tried doing to screw disabled people was obliterate the Affordable Care Act. While the ACA is far from being the best of all possible health-care plans, it does ban health insurers from refusing to provide coverage for people with pre-existing conditions—e.g., disabilities. It also prohibits private insurers from putting annual or lifetime limits on how much they will pay to cover the expenses of an insured individual.
These are important breakthroughs because being disabled can be God-awful expensive. Disabled folks often need wheelchairs, ventilators, specialized medical attention, and other pricey stuff like that. But this annoying neediness cuts into the enormous profits that are the health insurance industry’s reason for being. So prior to the ACA, private insurers were free to outright deny us coverage or to slap lifetime spending caps on our plans.
When Trump started out, the House of Representatives was under Republican control and the Speaker of the House was Paul Ryan, whose spirit animal has to be a weasel. So ACA repeal legislation quickly passed the House.
Trump said he was eager to sign it but, thank God, he never got his chance because the bill failed to pass the Senate by one measly vote, after three Republican Senators joined all the Democrats in voting against it.
I like to think that opposition to this legislation by disabled activists helped save the ACA. About sixty protesters staged a die-in by dropping out of their wheelchairs and sprawling out on the floor inside and outside of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in Washington, D.C. The pictures and videos of dozens of them being hauled away and arrested were quite dramatic and went viral.
The Republican zeal to repeal didn’t stop there. But neither did the protests.
A few months later, as a Senate hearing got underway to advance new legislation to repeal the ACA, a chant arose from the gallery: “No cuts to Medicaid! Save our Liberty!” The noise was too loud for the hearing to proceed and so police again hauled people in wheelchairs and blind people out of the hearing room. The hearing proceeded but, mercifully, that legislation also went up in flames shortly thereafter.
What made all the ACA repeal bills particularly scary for disabled folks was that they also would have gutted Medicaid. They sought to do this in a particularly cowardly and sneaky manner, by converting Medicaid funding to states into block grants.
Since the inception of the program, Medicaid funding has always been open-ended. The state and federal governments split the cost of providing health care for all people in that state enrolled in Medicaid, whatever that cost turns out to be. Funding grows, under this system, when need grows. But block grants limit how much federal Medicaid money each state can receive; if it’s not enough to go around, then there would just have to be cuts. Block grants, in other words, would be spending caps. Disabled folks, with all our expensive needs, would probably be among the first to be denied.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated that the original ACA repeal bill would have cut federal Medicaid spending by about $772 billion over ten years.
And, while this bill failed to pass the Senate, Trump hasn’t given up on his block-grant dream. His proposed budgets have continued to call for the conversion to Medicaid block grants. But that idea has never made it through Congress into actual federal budgets. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which must approve state Medicaid plans, has encouraged states to submit plans that convert to block grants.
Trump doesn’t just want to slash Medicaid through the backdoor. It looks like he aims to do the same to Social Security. He won’t admit that this is his agenda—or maybe he’s deluded enough to believe that he can cut a bunch of money without anyone who depends on Social Security noticing any difference.
In a cynically opportunistic response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump issued an executive order in August allowing employers to defer deducting payroll taxes from the paychecks of most employees for the rest of this calendar year. The order said, “This modest, targeted action will put money directly in the pockets of American workers and generate additional incentives for work and employment, right when the money is needed most.”
Payroll taxes are what fund most of the Social Security payments made to senior citizens and disabled people. And Trump said after signing the order that, if he is re-elected, he will make those deferments permanent. The executive order also instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to “explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation” to pay payroll taxes.
So what would happen to Social Security if payroll taxes were suddenly and permanently eliminated with no alternative revenue stream established to replace it?
Shortly after Trump issued the order, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, and three other Senators sent a letter to Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, asking precisely that question. Goss replied that under such a scenario, the trust fund from which Social Security disability payments are drawn would become “permanently depleted in about the middle of calendar year 2021, with no ability to pay [Disability Insurance Trust Fund] benefits thereafter.”
Now I know that even if Trump wins again, and even if the Republicans somehow take control of both the House and Senate, there’s no way legislation like this would pass in the foreseeable future. It probably wouldn’t get introduced, since even Republicans know that Social Security is a wildly popular program and messing with it is very politically dangerous.
Trump eventually said, after declaring his intention to permanently put an end to payroll taxes, that he doesn’t want to starve Social Security to death. He said he merely seeks to establish alternative funding sources.
But, if he wins, he could easily try to circumvent the need for Congressional action to permanently change how Social Security is funded by extending his executive order to defer payroll taxes. And if he did, in just a few short months, people who receive Social Security disability payments would be in serious trouble.
I wouldn’t for a minute put it past Trump to try to pull off something nasty like that, even if it would be monumentally stupid. (That’s never stopped him before.) His image of the glory days of the United States of America is from many decades ago, when there wasn’t anything like Social Security, Medicaid, or the ACA to support disabled folks. He’d just as soon revert to those days, and to hell with the consequences for disabled folks. Thinking about picky little stuff like that is too overwhelming. He might explode.
But if Trump’s payroll tax posturing is only a bluff, it’s still a despicable ploy. He wants working people to see this as a “modest, targeted action” that puts money in their pockets “right when the money is needed most.” He doesn’t want working people to think about what payroll taxes pay for or what happens if they go away. He doesn’t want them to consider that they or someone they love may have to rely on Social Security disability support someday. He puts it in their heads that payroll taxes do nothing but take hard-earned money from their pockets.
And finally, as if his passionate disregard for disabled folks needed to be underscored, in August Trump argued that college football should go on, COVID-19 be damned, falsely contending, “It just attacks old people, especially old people with bad heart, diabetes, or some kind of a physical problem.”
Translation: We shouldn’t make a big deal about COVID-19 because it only kills old people and cripples, who don’t matter.
That’s how Trump works, by pitting us all against each other. But what else should we expect from a guy who uses disabled folks as cheap joke fodder?