Craig Shirley Does the Disabled
Craig Shirley is the guy whose PR firm created the newly formed Disabled Americans for Death Tax Repeal. Disabled Americans for Death Tax Repeal ran a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Times to lobby Congress to abolish the federal estate tax.
According to its press release, the group was formed to refute an "a misguided advertising campaign group of multi-millionaires and billionaires called 'Responsible Wealth' who want to preserve the federal estate tax claiming it would be an 'unfortunate legacy' for America's future generations to inherit family money and property."
"I was deeply offended by the callous and heartless comments made by this group," said Erin O'Leary, President of Disabled Americans for Death Tax Relief. "I take offense that this group of wealthy elite should term helping people like me an 'unfortunate legacy' and that I shouldn't be allowed to keep the money my family has earned to offset future medical expenses." The group cites the need to allow mothers and fathers to assist their disabled children with long-term care needs after their death.
Offended by O'Leary's comments I asked around disability circles as to who this O'Leary fellow might be. None had heard of him. Investigation of Shirley turned up quite a cornucopia of insight however. Much of Shirley's work comes from various conservative groups that want him to get their views on talk radio, like the NRA. In recent years, he has worked for the Kuwaiti government and for interests connected to Haiti's provisional military regime. The press contact on the Disabled Americans for Death Tax Repeal is Diana Banister, also the contact for a "free speech" anti-campaign finance reform effort. George Stephanopoulos tagged Shirley "an adviser to the Dole campaign, a paid agent to the tobacco lobby, a paid agent of the gun lobby." The Washington Post reported that some say Shirley -- like so many prominent Washington conservatives, a veteran of the Reagan-era National Conservative Political Action Committee -- was left out of the Dole campaign because he is too much the in-your-face operative for a campaign aiming for a moderate image. Perhaps, but he is certainly behind the George W. Bush estate tax repeal agenda.
Rarely do I co-write op-eds for newspapers, but I knew a quadriplegic conservative who had served under Bush Sr. and was not a believer in repealing the estate tax and thought we might be successful in getting a rebuttal printed if not in the Wall Street Journal (Washington Times was definitely out), in the Washington Post.
Offended by the obvious manipulation of this small group of disabled persons by the Shirley PR machine and driven on by the unnecessary subsequent apologies of the members of Responsible Wealth who were made to feel embarrassed that they had not given any thought to the disability angle of their position, we co-wrote the following editorial:
Disability "Death Tax" Deception
Recently, a few vocal disabled persons have been claiming publicly that the estate tax should be repealed because it harms the disabled population. These individuals have been recruited by a sophisticated public relations effort sponsored by wealthy interests that wish to perpetuate their wealth indefinitely. The claim is that millions of individuals have left major estates for the medical expenses of their children or relatives with disabilities, and these estates are being taxed away. This contention simply is not plausible. The estate tax is a tax imposed only on extremely wealthy individuals when they die -- less than 2% of taxpayers (representing fewer than 43,000 estates in 1997) pay this tax. And two-thirds of the estate tax is paid by the richest 0.2% of taxpayers. While it is true that many disabled persons have major health care expenses, the vast majority are from families of modest means. It is certain that a very small percentage of the disabled population receives inheritances from estates above the current $675,000 exclusion. And by 2006, the exclusion for most estates will climb to $1 million. It is not possible that 4 million disabled people could be adversely affected, as claimed by the repeal proponents. In the war of rhetoric, the estate tax has been labeled the "death tax" by proponents who wish to obscure the issue. Who could oppose repeal of a tax on death? The problem is that this is not a tax on death; it is a tax on wealth accumulated during life, and it is the essential linchpin that attempts to ensure a playing field that is not grossly unfair. Even with the estate tax, overall wealth and income gaps between Americans of different means remain wider today than at any time since the end of World War II. The US has the greatest wealth and poverty polarization of any "first world" nation. A 1997 study found that about 10% of the US population own or control 77% of the nation's total net wealth (nonresidential), the top 1% controls 43%. The top 1% of population maintains a larger share of wealth than the bottom 90%, with the top 10% owning over twice as much as the rest of the citizenry. As a group, people with disabilities are among the poorest of all Americans. Based on data from the 1995 Current Population Survey, 38.3% of working-age adults with severe work disabilities (i.e., unable to work due to a disability) live in poverty, compared with 30% of those limited in their ability to work and 10.2% of those not limited in work. The 1998 National Organization on Disability (NOD)/Harris survey found that 33% of disabled persons live in households with incomes of less than $15,000; only 12% of adults without disabilities live in such households. According to these data, disabled people are three to four times as likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. Presumably, if these individuals had family members with substantial means, these family members would be raising their economic circumstances above the poverty line before leaving an inheritance. The traditional smokescreen always raised to justify the elimination of the estate tax is that it forces the next generation to sell the family farm or business. Just as that problem (if real) could be remedied by targeted solutions, the new smokescreen concerning taxation of estates needed by disabled persons could be remedied by legislation that would allow special needs trust funds to be exempt for such purposes. We should analyze how many disabled persons are actually being harmed by the estate tax, and remedy their problem to the extent justified. We will probably find that the problem is not nearly as large as is being portrayed. Further, abolishing the estate tax may cause new problems, such as eroding government revenues available for disability programs upon which the less well off disabled persons rely. Using disabled people to front for the interests of the wealthiest members of our society is an outrage and a disgrace.
The op-ed never saw the light of day. This stunned my co-writer, who said he always got his right of center opinions printed whenever he submitted one and he was flattened by how "arrogant" the Post had been with him. Was I surprised? Well after some thought, no. Craig Shirley had paid for his free speech and I suspected none of the newspapers wanted to buck a prospective paying advertiser like Shirley by printing another point of view. Paying for the "right" to free speech seemed to be the only way to overcome the impasse, and we, unlike Disabled Americans for Death Tax Repeal, being a part of the less well-off disabled population could not afford that luxury.
Andrew Batavia is a professor in the School of Policy and Management of Florida International University and former executive director of the National Council on disability.