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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

Contract killers

(March 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995, p. 14.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘The whole point of the Republicans’ Contract with America is to increase the suffering of the workers and the poor, while the rich get still richer’

‘What is it that makes a politician jubilant at the prospect of hungry men and women reduced to rooting through garbage for the remnants of someone else’s meal? What sickness enables a politician to experience joy at the creation of policies that are guaranteed to force people out of their homes and into the street?’ So wrote news columnist Bob Herbert, describing the giddy enthusiasm of Republican lawmakers as they began hacking away at social spending and basic civil rights for poor and working class people on a scale not seen since the Depression of the 1930s.

Ronald Reagan’s assertion a decade ago, that welfare should be for the ‘truly needy’, seems quite tame now that Republicans can declare, as Senator (and likely 1996 presidential candidate) Phil Gramm did recently, that all social programmes based upon need should simply be eliminated. In fact, one would have to return to the days of President Herbert Hoover at the onset of the Depression to match the open contempt shown by US lawmakers today toward society’s poorest people. For example, Michigan Republican Dave Camp recently argued that government should stop all welfare benefits to women ‘who violate social convention by having children they cannot support’. In other words, they should be punished for being poor, and so should their children – by starvation, if necessary.

Republicans in Congress have overlooked no opportunity to slash spending for the poor, starting with welfare. In fact, their Personal Responsibility Act, scheduled to come up for vote in April, explicitly abolishes ‘all entitlement of individuals to [welfare] benefits’ – overturning laws that have been in place since the struggles of the 1930s.

The act drastically cuts welfare spending, despite the fact that in no state do benefits bring recipient families even close to the poverty level. In addition, the act requires all states to force women and children off welfare after a maximum of two years, after which they must ‘work off’ their benefits.

These attacks on the poor are taking place not only in Congress, but in state legislatures all over the US, where Republicans are using their newfound status as majority party to rush through massive cuts even before Congress acts. New York’s Republican governor George Pataki has proposed a 15 percent across the board cut in benefits to the aged, the disabled and the blind. And from now on no ‘employable’ person will be allowed to stay on welfare for more than 90 days in any 12 month period.

Politicians no longer even bother to claim that any of these cuts are about saving money. Cutting welfare has proved more expensive than preserving it: it is estimated that the state of Massachusetts, which recently passed severe cuts, will spend about $17 million more on its welfare bureaucracy next year. The whole point of the Republicans’ ‘Contract with America’ is to increase the suffering of workers and the poor, while the rich get still richer. The Wall Street Journal recently made this point rather bluntly, ‘Buried in the House Republicans’ Contract with America is a very sweet deal for America’s big capital-intensive companies.’

But big business has yet another reason to rejoice at the Contract with America, which became apparent when the Republicans disclosed the details of their Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act – which has nothing to do with either. Rather this multi-faceted bill is a gift to big business, relieving them of most forms of government regulation so they can pollute air and water freely, and endanger workers’ safety and health without fear of government reprisal.

Congressional Republicans unveiled another key component of the Contract with America last month. Their new crime bill, called the Take Back Our Streets Act, allows courts to accept evidence that was obtained by police without a search warrant – reversing the 1914 Supreme Court ruling which prohibits unlawful searches by police. One portion of the act forces all those convicted of crimes to pay full restitution to their victims. Another portion limits the right of prisoners to file ‘frivolous’ lawsuits, such as those involving civil rights or prison conditions. And the act, of course, provides yet more funds for building prisons.

It is no wonder the Republicans are feeling so confident. The only opposition they’ve encountered on the electoral front has come from Christian conservatives, who want Republicans to accelerate the gallop to the right. The Christian Coalition issued a public warning that it would not support a Republican presidential ticket in next year’s election unless both candidates take a stand against legal abortion. Abortion is the one issue which the 82 page Contract with America carefully avoids mentioning, since most anti-abortion political candidates were soundly defeated in 1992.

Clinton and the Democrats have said and done little in response to the Republicans, other than provide a faint echo here and a feeble objection there.

Clinton has threatened to use his veto pen on only one issue – if the Republicans try to interfere with his plan to put 100,000 more police on the streets. Other Democrats have even argued that the Republicans’ welfare bill is too lenient. Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri (another possible contender for president) complained that the Republican proposal ‘does nothing, absolutely nothing’ to force welfare recipients to work.

It came as no surprise therefore when the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Democratic Party’s standing among working class and poor people has dropped significantly over the last two years. Only 55 percent of blue collar workers are pro-Democrat, compared with 81 percent two years ago. And among those with incomes below $20,000 the figure is only 39 percent, compared with 55 percent two years ago.

And a small number of people are starting to find ways to direct their anger, like a group of more than 100 Washington DC welfare mothers who crashed a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on welfare reform.

Carrying signs that said, ‘Put Newt [Gingrich] in an Orphanage’, they stopped the hearings and drove the Republicans out of the room. ‘We just want to be heard as you play politics with our lives,’ one protester shouted.

Another said, ‘Rich people like you don’t make the right decisions. You just want to get richer. Let welfare recipients and poor people be heard.’

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