When public outcry makes a difference
WASHINGTON — Around the country, some schools are already running out of money. In Oregon, schools are closing for the summer as much as three weeks early this year. Some public hospitals are closing. The Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn is in danger of closing. In Kansas, the 4-H clubs are cutting back on their activities. In Seattle, drug addicts are on a waiting list for methadone treatment. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has suspended designating tracts of land as critical habitats. Our government can dispense awe and shock around the world, but seems unable to perform its primary task of governing.
Nothing better illustrates the disconnect between basic needs and negligent government than the denouement of the battle over the third tax cut in three years. President Bush signed the bill with evident pride May 28, emphasizing that the Jobs and Growth Act would benefit not only investors, but families with children. He said it would increase the per-child tax credit from $600 to $1,000. And the checks would start flowing in July to 25 million eligible families.
What he did not say was that, in the dark of night, the final Senate-House conference on the bill contrived to deny the increased benefit to about 12 million children in low-wage families. Don't ask me to understand, let alone explain, the technicalities by which this was done, but the outcome was a formula for calculating the credit that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, omitted families in the income range of about $10,000 to $26,000.
Why would they want to do that? Well, the Senate had voted that the cost of the bill could not exceed $350 billion over 10 years, and, with the cuts in taxes on dividends and capital gains, they were having trouble keeping the bill down to that figure. And so cutting back on poor families without high-paid lobbyists to defend them seemed to be the way to go.
Remember when President Bush, in the State of the Union address in January, announced - to great applause - that the child credit should be raised to $1,000 "now"? When it came to signing the bill, he spoke of the higher tax credit and lower marriage penalty making a difference "for families in every part of this country."
He did not mention the low-wage families excluded so that high-wage families would not have to suffer.
Investor Warren Buffett, for example, wrote in The Washington Post that he would benefit from the dividend tax cut to the tune of $310 million.
End of story ... well, usually it would be. But this time something surprising happened. The New York Times learned of the way the benefit had been reduced for families of the working poor and played the story on Page 1.
Others in the media followed suit. Time magazine published a full-page article by Joe Klein headlined, "Blessed Are the Poor - They Don't Get Tax Cuts." Congressional mail registered voter outrage at the heartlessness of the action.
And guess what? As soon as Congress came back from its holiday, a bipartisan coalition of 26 senators introduced a bill that would restore the tax credit for working families and compensate for it by eliminating a number of tax shelters.
"We are here today, united in our effort to fight for these working families," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas, introducing the bill. The bill still faces a hurdle in the House, where Majority Leader Tom DeLay is opposing it.
But, for once, because popular outrage had found a voice, government may end up doing what it should have done in the first place.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.