The Social Security Amendments of 1965, which established Medicare and Medicaid, were approved by the House of Representatives on July 27 of that year and by the Senate on July 28 of that year. These life-saving, and life-transforming, measures became effective two days later, on July 30, 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed them into law.
As the 52nd anniversary of those historic dates approached this summer, Medicaid’s future was threatened by Republican members of Congress who in their rush to destroy President Obama’s legacy—via the repeal of the Affordable Care Act—also laid the groundwork for the destruction of President Johnson’s legacy.
There is no underestimating the significance of the failure of President Trump and his congressional allies to get their way in the early morning hours of July 28, 2017, when the Senate narrowly rejected the so-called “skinny repeal” that had been proposed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. CNN referred to the 49-51 vote as “a devastating setback to Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.” But the Senate vote was about more than repealing the Affordable Care Act. Had the Senate approved the absurdly ill-defined “skinny repeal” legislation, activists and senators who opposed the measure feared that it would ultimately be sent to a House-Senate conference committee where, warned Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, “I believe a conference bill would include the kind of deep cuts to Medicaid that would be very problematic for the people I represented.”
Collins voted “no,” as did two other Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John McCain of Arizona. They were accorded a good deal of credit for blocking McConnell’s move, as were Senate Democrats, who were united in their opposition.
But the greatest credit for blocking “skinny repeal” and averting schemes to cut and cap Medicaid—at least for this anniversary—goes to the remarkable activists who fought for their lives and for our future on Capitol Hill over the past several weeks. Americans who rely on Medicaid, for their own survival and for the survival of their children and families, traveled to Washington at great physical and economic expense to save the program—and to argue for a health-care system that provides all Americans with the care, assistance and dignity they have a right to demand. Called to action by ADAPT, a grassroots disability-rights organization with chapters in 30 states, and by Disability Action for America and other disability-rights organizations nationwide, and supported by brilliant organizers such as Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, they recognized what was at stake. And they did what was necessary to make their presence known.
“We must keep it up!” declared an ADAPT national action alert “And while it’s important to work with our allies fighting against this bill, the importance of disability-led efforts cannot be overstated. We are the ones who will be harmed first, and most, by this bill. We are responsible for getting our message through. Nothing about us without us!
“Right now on Capitol Hill scary threats are being made to disability social justice,” declared Colleen Flanagan of Disability Action. “The future of disability rights can not afford us to delay in taking action!”
Courageous activists did take action. They kept vigils day and night, sleeping in wheelchairs when necessary. They participated in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience that led to daunting moments of confrontation and removal. They challenged the inaccessibility of public buildings—and public officials. They willingly faced arrest in what they termed a “Fight for Life and Liberty.” In Senate office buildings, they unfurled banners that declared: “Capping Medicaid = Death 4 Disabled.”
The protests were so bold, so effective, that congressional leaders were shaken. In one of the cruelest hoaxes of the current health-care debate, Republicans were spinning themselves as defenders of the very safety-net programs that their party once opposed and continues to threaten. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, was making his usual empty promises—in hopes of enticing senators to entrust him to shape the future of the Medicare and Medicaid he has for so many years targeted. Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson tried to position himself as a champion of “traditional Medicare.” Johnson grabbed lots of camera time by suggesting that he might split with McConnell, and by offering an amendment to “end further enrollment in Medicaid expansion” that he claimed was an effort “to preserve and sustain Medicaid…not harming anybody, not children, not the disabled, not the elderly.”
But what most excited Johnson appeared to be proposals for “devolving the management back to the states, and putting some level of sustainability into an unsustainable entitlement program.” Activists heard those words for what they were: a threat to constrain and “devolve” rather than expand and evolve an essential program. They took protests to his offices in Wisconsin and in Washington—as they did to those of other Republican senators.
Ultimately, Johnson voted with McConnell and Trump to open debate on the “skinny repeal” measure and then, on early Friday morning, to approve it. However, he was one of just 49 votes for “skinny repeal” and the risks it entailed. Fifty-one senators voted “no,” and do not doubt for a moment that the stalwart activism of disability-rights activists—their protests, their civil disobedience, their willingness to fight on even as some said the struggle was hopeless, and their resolute focus on threats to Medicaid—framed and extended the debate in essential ways. They are the true heroes of this struggle as the resistance celebrates now and as it prepares to confront the threats that are sure to come from a White House and a Congress that seeks not just to reverse Barack Obama’s accomplishments but those of Lyndon Baines Johnson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.