OEDEL: Extra benefits as largesse

April 14, 2013 

In The Telegraph, former Macon mayor and current mayoral candidate C. Jack Ellis, objected to my sideways reference to Veterans Administration benefits and Social Security disability benefits as possible forms of governmental “largesse” on which, absent Medicaid expansion, an individual might look to rely for health care.

Ellis publicly asked me to apologize, because he felt the “largesse” term disrespected his disabilities tracing to Vietnam combat, and because, in the 1990s, his son “was born with spina bifida because I was sprayed with the deadly toxin, commonly referred to as Agent Orange, while serving in Vietnam.” Ellis explained that his son has been “receiving VA disability compensation” and probably will permanently, as he’s “confined to a wheelchair for life.”

I meant no disrespect for any veteran’s service. I also didn’t mean to minimize the tough challenges faced by individuals with spina bifida, including Ellis’ son, and their communities of support.

But I did intend to describe as governmental “largesse” some aspects of VA benefits, like spina bifida benefits for Ellis’ son, who didn’t serve in the military, and some forms of Social Security disability benefits, like disability checks for conditions that amount to little more than inability to find work.

I used the word largesse in the sense that such benefits go beyond what we’ve traditionally expected U.S. government to do. The medical and legal history of spina bifida benefits for kids of Vietnam vets is a fair example of why I stick by the term.

Our use of Agent Orange in Vietnam as an earth-scorching defoliant, with immediately obvious ill effects on innocent people and soldiers alike, was dead wrong. Many people in Vietnam and the states alike have paid for that terrible mistake with their lives.

In acknowledging our collective national error in using Agent Orange, Congress appropriately passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Under that act, spina bifida for Vietnam vets’ kids was not covered. There was insufficient evidence that spina bifida suffered by kids of our veterans was caused by Agent Orange.

In 1993, Bill Clinton assumed office, and immediately got crosswise with the military over sexual preference issues. By 1996, Clinton was running hard for re-election in a then-close race, and trying to reverse field on his problems with the military.

On May 28, 2006, the same day three of Clinton’s Whitewater partners were convicted of fraud after a 12-week trial, Clinton ceremoniously unveiled, for vets who’d been exposed to Agent Orange, an expansion of benefits for things like prostate cancer. He also announced his intention to extend benefits for vets’ kids with spina bifida. Clinton soon extracted congressional approval for that unusual benefit.

Extension of VA benefits to vets’ kids with spina bifida and for vets’ prostate cancer was surprising because The New York Times reported that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs made an interesting admission that same day. “Medical evidence linking Agent Orange to such illnesses is ‘quite evenly balanced,’ ’’ he said, “and has not shown a conclusive causal connection.”

A causal connection between Agent Orange and those maladies remains scientifically dubious years later in 2013. Substantial research continues to indicate that Agent Orange caused neither prostate cancer in vets, nor spina bifida in vets’ kids. But, the secretary was quoted as saying in 1996, “the president and I firmly believe that the VA needs to be on the side of veterans and their children.”

And that’s the point.

As Ellis the politician demonstrates locally, our system entices politicians to be “on the side” of extending extra governmental benefits in circumstances where it’s unclear that benefits should be extended by right.

That’s political largesse.

Largesse isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as all our blessings in life are examples of some kind of transcendent largesse. But there’s an important difference between benefiting some people with public money out of beneficence, which is largesse, and government’s core duty to pay its bills, in which case, the recipient is fairly expecting to collect on a legal right.

Oedel is a lawyer and law professor at Mercer University’s School of Law.

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