Juan Williams: Congress shows rare compassion on disabled

Christmas sermons and carols can be heard nationwide this week appealing for love and compassion among all people. As a Washington columnist this season offers me a jangling reminder of how rare it is to see the teachings of my savior, Jesus Christ, come to life on Capitol Hill.

Chief among His teachings is caring for those who are less fortunate: the poor, elderly, children and the disabled.

The latest Census reports that 1 in every 5 Americans suffers some form of disability — about 60 million of our neighbors. The disabled, however, rarely have their concerns addressed in Congress. 

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This Christmas there is a star of hope for the disabled shining through Washington’s dark night of partisan dysfunction.

The GOP House, in defiance of critics among the grassroots who oppose any new government program, responded to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) message of compassion by voting 404 to 17 earlier this month to pass the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act. The Democratic majority in the Senate, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offering his support, won 76 votes to pass the ABLE Act and send it to President Obama for final approval before year’s end.

The new legislation allows people with disabilities and the families that care for them to set up tax-exempt savings accounts to pay for the help they need to survive, cope, and grow stronger.

That need is overwhelming. Several studies show high poverty rates for people with disabilities. The expense that comes with caring for the disabled is often a devastating drain on personal and family budgets.

“Although the Americans with Disabilities Act assures equal opportunities in education and employment…” the American Psychological Association notes on its website, “people with disabilities remain overrepresented among America’s poor and undereducated.” The APA reports, for example, that 70 percent of blind Americans are unemployed. And Census data shows more than half of older veterans in poverty have a disability.

The APA ties the low economic standing of the disabled to their high medical expenses. The result is that families with the heart to help the disabled end up being financially at-risk for following Christian teaching.

Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.), the House Republican Conference Chairwoman, knows the situation personally. She has a special needs son, Cole. 

“When Cole was born, my husband and I were told: ‘Don’t put any assets in his name because he may need to qualify [as a poor person] for one of these [low-income aid] programs in the future,” she explained, as she made the case that disabled people should not be forced to choose between living in poverty or deceiving government agencies to fall under the income cut-off to qualify for federal aid.

McMorris-Rodgers’ plea for passage of the ABLE Act in a recent Republican radio address was supported by Rep. Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsTrump: Republicans' and my poll numbers would be higher if not for Mueller's 'witch hunt' Bannon says right must support ‘RINOs’ Bannon seeks to boost Republican turnout in midterms with new film MORE (R-Texas). He has a son with Down syndrome. “Every one of these [ABLE] accounts will be a new ladder of opportunity [for the disabled],” Session said. “And a new source of the one thing every parent loves – peace of mind.”

The financial lifeline for the disabled and their families in the ABLE Act shines all the brighter because of Congress’ recent bad behavior in rejecting a United Nations treaty calling for international human rights protections for the disabled.

In December 2012, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), now 91 and in a wheelchair, made the effort to go to the Senate to rally his former colleagues in support of the treaty. When the bill lost due to lack of GOP support then-Sen. John Kerry, now Secretary of State, was appalled. 

“Today I understand better than ever before why Americans have such disdain for Congress and just how much must happen to fix the Senate so we can act on the real interests of our country,” Kerry said.

One of the 38 Republicans who voted against ratification was Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsPat Robertson asks followers to help cast 'shield of protection' ahead of hurricane Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke The farm bill gives Congress a chance to act on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act MORE (R-Kan.] who ignored Dole’s plea and pandered to heavy lobbying from Tea Party activists who falsely claimed the treaty was part of an elaborate conspiracy.

So it was indicative of Dole’s spirit of Christian forgiveness when he took his ailing body, in the wheelchair, back to Kansas to campaign for Roberts as faced tough odds against being reelected. With Dole’s good name behind him, Roberts won.

Now the political tension following the midterms dominates Washington. It is evident within both parties. There is intramural fighting between Tea Party and Establishment Republicans on one side, while populists take on the pragmatists on the Democratic side. 

Republicans continue to bash President Obama for the Affordable Care Act even though it is a clear success by every measure; most of all by providing medical coverage to a quarter of previously uninsured Americans (including some of whom are disabled), lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and reducing the rate of increase in insurance premiums.

Even under the reforms included in Obamacare many disabled Americans face life with current tax laws financially punishing their families. That is where the new ABLE law comes to the rescue. The best part is that ABLE accounts will not affect a disabled American’s eligibility for other means-tested social programs, including Medicaid.

The meaning of Christmas is revealed when people use their blessings to lift up other people. This Christmas that light can even be seen in Congress.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.