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ABLE Act shows how Congress can get work done – and how hard it is

Congress is beset by partisanship that has made it virtually impossible to get much done. But the ABLE ACT, which passed at the end of the last Congress and helps children with disabilities, could serve as a model.

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    (L. to r.) Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Rep. Ander Crenshaw, and House Speaker John Boehner held a December news conference on the ABLE Act.
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The examples that suggest that Washington bipartisanship might be broken beyond repair are generally as close as the evening news. The president resorting to rule by executive action. Congress filing lawsuits against the president in response. And all that was even before the new Congress convened.

This is America’s hyperpartisan era, where money has too much influence, political zealots set the agenda, and the era of the blogosphere and 24-hour news has trivialized and polarized political discourse. That is the thinking, at least, and often, it is the reality, as well. 

And yet, there is an asterisk, not from decades ago, but from months ago. Last year, Congress passed the ABLE Act with strong bipartisan support. In the great scheme of Washington politics, it seemed a small thing – a $2 billion program to help families of disabled children save money for future needs.

But it was more than that. It was the little bill that could – a bill that at every step went against Washington’s accepted way of doing things, a bill that was so important to those behind it that they swallowed even painful compromises to ensure it survived.

It is the bill that refused to die.

Its passage holds lessons for how to get things done in a gridlocked Congress. Is it a combination that could unlock immigration reform, entitlement reform, tax reform? In some ways, yes. But the greatest lesson from the ABLE Act’s unlikely passage is that in the Washington of today even common-sense bipartisan legislation can take years. There is no silver bullet, no quick fix. The ABLE Act succeeded because of humility, hard work, and an honest desire to find a solution.

What is perhaps most shocking about the story of the ABLE Act is that it seems like such a “no duh” piece of legislation. Congress has created tax-advantaged savings accounts for people to save for retirement or college, but not for the families of people with disabilities. A child with disabilities couldn’t save more than $2,000 without losing federal disability-related benefits.

Yet, of course, the costs of caring for someone with disabilities can be enormous. For many families of disabled children, putting away money for the future is more than sound financial planning. It is a necessity.

“You go to college. You support yourself. You retire with the money that you made,” says Rick Hodges, a postal workers union staffer whose daughter, Audrey, has a condition diagnosed as Down syndrome. “A 529 [college savings] plan or IRA were set up with these kinds of lives in mind, but not for Audrey.”

To a handful of parents sitting around a kitchen table in Arlington, Va., including Mr. Hodges, this seemed obvious. Congress would have to fix it. Surely Congress would fix it. That was in 2005.

So began the ABLE Act’s nine-year journey to becoming law – as a conversation around a suburban dinner table. Yet in that humble beginning was also what would emerge as the bill’s greatest strength. The people owned it, and they were relentless.

Along the way, those parents would get help – would use the connections they had as residents of a town where a falling tree would hit 10 lobbyists. But the sinew of the legislation was never in the lobbyists. It was a bill that began from the ground up, from the actual grass roots, and those behind it would work to make sure it never became the political plaything of one lobbyist or party or party leader.

In a congressional culture where leaders increasingly drive the agenda, building from the ground up is a recipe for being ignored. But the ABLE Act has proved that it can also create a political momentum that bridges leaders, presidents, and congressional power plays. Done right, it is a way to survive.

That process began with Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R) of Florida. One of the parents, Jen Sikora, was a former congressional staffer who was neighbors with Representative Crenshaw’s chief of staff.

Crenshaw was hardly the ideal pick. For one thing, he wasn’t on the right committee. Any tax code change had to come from the House Ways and Means Committee.

But he immediately grasped the need. He knew families in his district struggling with this limitation, and he was certain that other members had similar contacts. If he could get those grass-roots contacts on board, he thought, that could drive legislation. He told colleagues that a $2,000 limit in existing law amounted to “forced impoverishment” for people with disabilities.

“You’re forced to live in impoverishment or forfeit government help,” he argued.

The cause had found its congressional true believer. The legislation, he said, was bigger than one person’s ego or agenda. So long as “it doesn’t matter who gets the credit,” he said, it could get through Congress.

An unusual alliance

Crenshaw’s first move was proof of that conviction. He was close to the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, then-Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, the one man whose influence could have moved the bill forward fastest. But Crenshaw didn’t start there. He chose to start on the opposite end of the political spectrum. He went to a man who was a junior member of Ways and Means and a Democrat, Kendrick Meek.

From the beginning, it was crucial that support for this bill be nonpartisan, supporters said. Disabilities made no distinction between Democrat or Republican. Nor should the legislation.

But the supporters of the ABLE Act were savvy enough to know that they needed to use different appeals for different colleagues. Crenshaw won fellow Republicans with the argument that the bill gave individuals a chance to provide for themselves through their own savings, rather than accepting a handout from government, says John Ariale, Crenshaw’s then chief of staff, who led the drive on a staff level.

Mr. Meek mobilized members of the Congressional Black Caucus to sign on as sponsors. It was a good fit for lawmakers already committed to expanding health insurance coverage for children and ensuring government help for people with disabilities.

Surviving partisan swings

The benefits of Crenshaw’s approach slowly became apparent. He introduced the first version of the ABLE Act in the House in 2006 at a time when Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and White House. Yet Democrats swept back into power in both houses in November elections that year. In 2008, they strengthened their majorities and Barack Obama won the White House.

Such a dramatic swing of party control would have been lethal for a partisan legislative agenda. But it had little effect on the ABLE Act. Undeterred, supporters went about doing what they had been doing before: persuading lawmakers to join the cause, mobilizing parent activists, and asking disability groups to set aside their own doubts and differences and back the bill. 

Early on, some of the leading disability groups were reluctant to take a chance on a losing battle on Capitol Hill. They also worried that a bill about encouraging savings by disabled people might be a first step toward cutting federal benefits for those with disabilities.

The only way to get the bill done in the minds of some disability groups was to go to Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and Tom Harkin, says Philip Pedlikin, who hosted the meeting with parents that launched the drive. He later worked with disability groups on the grass-roots effort. “But that we specifically avoided,” he says. “We needed credibility and we knew it, but credibility had to come from a broader base.”

What convinced many in the disability community to back the bill was the early, bipartisan momentum on Capitol Hill. 

Crenshaw and Meek reintroduced the bill in February 2009, along with Reps. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington, who joined the effort after her son Cole was diagnosed with Down syndrome before birth.

Representative McMorris Rodgers’s story was a powerful one, putting a close, personal face on the issue for many legislators. 
“Here you are, a new parent who is ready to give your all to this child, yet I was being told: Don’t put any assets in his name because it may disqualify him from important services he may need later in his life,” she says. “I cringed. That’s the wrong message to be sending parents.”

Five years after the effort began, it was beginning to near a critical mass. “The number of sponsors increased year by year no matter who was in the majority,” she adds.

The ABLE Act was subsequently reintroduced in every new Congress, each time with more sponsors and a stronger network of advocacy groups.

“The bill appeals to Democrats because we are protecting benefits and entitlement programs for people with disabilities, and it appeals to Republicans because this is a private sector solution to a public sector problem,” says Sara Hart Weir, interim president of the National Down Syndrome Society, which led the effort to build support for the bill among parents and interest groups.

Adds Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, a lead sponsor of the bill: “This was an example where persistence paid off.”

By the summer of 2014, 380 House members and 74 senators had signed on as sponsors – only 218 representatives and 60 senators are needed to ensure passage of a bill. The ABLE Act had become a force.

Yet in a parable of how Washington works, the bill still had a long way to go.

Navigating Congress and compromise

For one, the tax-writing committees had an aversion to stand-alone tax bills. They had been working on a broad overhaul of the tax code for six years, and that was their priority. It was not until this failed and its two primary authors, Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana and Representative Camp, had either left Congress or were on their way out that the ABLE Act could get a hearing.

In his last months, with comprehensive reform off the table, Camp took up the ABLE Act. It was supporters’ first real opening.

The result was perhaps the biggest crisis the bill had yet faced. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which produces the 10-year estimate of the cost of all spending legislation, came back with its numbers for the ABLE Act: $20 billion over 10 years.

For lawmakers who had expected the estimate to come in close to zero, that number was a stunner. With a $20 billion price tag, the bill would simply not pass Congress. And so nine years’ worth of work came down to one question: Would backers of the bill compromise? Yet it was at that point that all the work across the aisles, between House and Senate, and with grass-roots groups, was most important. The coalition held together, and it made a choice that no one wanted to make.

Reluctantly, supporters redrafted the bill to limit ABLE accounts to individuals whose disability had been diagnosed before age 26 – a provision that cut out many in the disability community. They also limited individuals to one savings account.

The CBO adjustments “led to some difficult conversations,” says McMorris Rodgers. In conversations with disappointed activists, she made a case to “get our foot in the door.”

“Let’s get the accounts established and prove that this is helping people,” she says. “Let’s at least get this on the books, and I’m very confident we’ll be able to show that this will be a success, and we’ll be able to build on it.”

What saved the bill was the quality of relationships built up over years, says Sen. Robert Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, who worked with Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina to move the bill in the Senate.

“No matter what the policy circumstance or environment that comes of enacting new policy, you need some fundamentals: You need to develop a relationship that’s built on trust in every circumstance. That means when you’re talking to staff or sending e-mails, you’re not going to break a confidence,” he adds.

With the bill’s changes, the final score dropped from $20 billion to $2 billion. The final bill allows individuals with disabilities to shelter as much as $100,000 in that account, down from $500,000 in the first version.

The House passed the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act with only 17 nay votes on Dec. 3. The bill cleared the Senate on Dec. 16 as part of a bigger tax package, 76 to 16. President Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 19.

“People are talking about how this Congress is so unproductive and polarized, yet we were able to get this amazing thing through,” says Hodges, the parent activist who started the ball rolling.

Looking back, Senator Casey adds one element to the requirements needed to move legislation through a divided Congress:

“Other than trusting relationships, you have to have some humility,” he says. “You have to be willing to run a long race.”

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