Editorial: When it’s safe to touch the third rail

  • Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, R- Ga. arrives at Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 10. AP

Published: 12/21/2016 12:05:02 AM

We have no idea what President-elect Donald Trump really thinks about Social Security and Medicare, those mainstays of old America.

On the campaign trail, he said nice things about both. We do know that Trump promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, this era’s effort to improve the lot of the uninsured. We also know that all three will be under attack in a matter of weeks when the new president and new Congress take office.

Three Republican members of Congress were named as the leaders of the coming assault, Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Sam Johnson of Texas and Tom Price of Georgia, who is Trump’s choice to be secretary of Health and Human Services. What, aside from their antipathy to federally subsidized programs, makes these three men feel safe attacking social programs that, in the case of Social Security and now Medicare, are considered the “third rail” of politics? A look at their congressional districts might explain not only that, but why political partisanship runs so deep and the nation is so polarized.

Take Meadows, a former businessman and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, which is lobbying for “reform” of Medicare and Social Security. Meadows represents North Carolina’s 11th District, which covers the far western corner of the state. According to the U.S. Census, the district has a population of 728,488, of which 664,942 are white, 23,758 black and 12,834 American Indian or Alaska Native.

Nearby North Carolina’s District 12 has a population of 770,194, of which 297,746 are white, 392,085 black and 3,412 American Indian. That district’s representative is Alma Adams, an African-American woman and a strong backer of Medicare, Social Security and especially SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.

Price, the leader of the Obamacare repeal effort, is a retired orthopedic surgeon who represents Georgia’s 6th District. It’s just north of Atlanta. Its population of 729,643 breaks down as 509,184 white, 95,974 black, 6,904 American Indian and 80,651 Asian. Adjacent District 5’s population of 736,978 has 425,941 African-Americans, 245,099 whites, 33,375 Asians and 3,059 Native Americans. Its representative is the acclaimed civil rights leader John Lewis, a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You can guess where he stands on the issues.

Leading the charge against Social Security, along with Meadows, is Texas 3rd District Rep. Sam Johnson, a decorated fighter pilot who flew missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars and spent seven years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war. Though the population of Texas is 39 percent Hispanic, they make up just 15 percent of Johnson’s district, which is just north of Dallas. Further south in the Lone Star State is District 15, a narrow, tortured jigsaw puzzle of politics whose population of 766,342 has 635,560 whites and 16,199 blacks. Hispanics account for 617,572 of the whites. That district’s congressman is Reuben Hinojosa, a Democrat and staunch supporter of Medicare, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act.

Politically safe districts allow representatives to grab the third rail because if they don’t, their opponent in a primary will promise to do just that. That helps to explain the attack on Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. The battle will begin next month.

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