I was 14 when I first saw Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and I enjoy watching it when it plays on television. It gives me hope in these Clinton-Lott-Daschle years that another Jimmy Stewart, another incorrigibly independent senator, will try to break through the bipartisan self-absorption of his colleagues.
I wish Frank Capra had been here on May 25 when Senator Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., spoke to a Senate chamber that was largely empty.
He was introducing an amendment to the fiscal 2000 Defense Authorization Bill that would require annual reports to find out what is happening to families that have been dropped from the rolls as a result of the widely applauded "welfare reform" bill. (Its inspirational title: Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act).
Wellstone proposed that the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the states annually collect for 24 months after the recipients' cases have been closed basic facts about the kinds of jobs they have, whether they earn a living, whether their children have been dropped from medical assistance, and whether they have any health insurance.
He pointed out that since August 1996 the actual living conditions of these 4.6 million "reformed" citizens mainly women and children are essentially unknown, except for limited surveys by relief groups and a few other organizations.
Yet, Wellstone said, "I have not heard a whisper of concern, let alone a shout of outrage, from the Senate. But we keep trumpeting the 'victory' of welfare reform, since national welfare caseloads are at their lowest point in 30 years. President Clinton, you have not provided one bit of evidence that reducing welfare rolls has led to the reduction of poverty."
Wellstone then asked the other senators: "Can any of you give me any data from your states?"
Absent an answer, Wellstone quoted from a survey conducted in January of this year by Catholic Charities USA, which reported that "73 percent of the dioceses had an increase by as much as 146 percent in requests for emergency food assistance from the year before."
And, he continued, a study five months later by Families USA revealed that "over two-thirds of a million low-income persons lost Medicaid coverage and became uninsured as of 1997 due to welfare reform. Sixty-two percent were children. Moreover, the number of people who lose health coverage due to welfare reform is certain to grow rather substantially in the years ahead."
Wellstone added that "in every state, there is a drop-dead certain date when families are going to be eliminated from all assistance." (He was referring to a five-year cumulative lifetime cap on benefits in the "welfare reform" law).
On May 25, the Wellstone amendment was defeated 50 to 49. Only three compassionate Republicans joined him: John Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. After the vote, Wellstone said: "I'm outraged there wasn't the courage to debate me on this amendment."
He tried again in July, attaching his amendment to the Treasury-Postal appropriations bill. On a voice vote, it was passed by the Senate.
"I suspect," Wellstone told me, "they didn't want any bad publicity, so they let my amendment through with the intention, maybe, of knocking it out in the conference committee."
And so they did. On Oct. 7, the indomitable senator offered a Sense of the Senate resolution to the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriation calling for the Senate to determine "the economic status of former recipients of assistance."
The resolution passed 98 to 1, but although it is non-binding, Wellstone wanted it to help build a record for the next time he attaches his tracking amendment to an appropriations bill. At that time, he intends to force debate by the Senate.
"I will not agree to a time limit," he says, "and I will stay on the floor for many hours."
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who did support Wellstone on the floor on May 25, told his colleagues that according to recent studies by the Children's Defense Fund and the National Coalition on the Homeless, "most former welfare recipients earn below-poverty wages and do not receive the essential services that would enable them to hold jobs and care for their children."
Are Al Gore, Bill Bradley or George W. Bush at all curious about these disappeared Americans? (Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights. Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn.)