The GOP’s Phantom Menace

The Republican Party’s new agenda is trying to solve problems that don’t exist.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition spring leadership meeting in Las Vegas on March 29, 2014. Walker has proposed drug-testing people applying for food stamps and unemployment insurance.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Scott Walker wants drug tests.

Specifically, the Wisconsin governor wants to drug-test people applying for food stamps and unemployment insurance. So far, there are no details to share; insofar that there’s a plan, it’s a single line from a campaign document, detailing Walker’s agenda for a second term.

And lack of detail aside, there’s a small problem: States aren’t allowed to take this step with either food stamps or unemployment insurance. If Walker wants drug tests, he’ll need permission from the federal government, which he’s prepared to fight on the issue. “We believe that there will potentially be a fight with the federal government and in court. … Our goal here is not to make it harder to get government assistance; it’s to make it easier to get a job,” he said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This push for drug tests doesn’t come out of the ether. Across the country, drug tests for public benefits are standard fare for Republican politicians. Since 2010, Republicans in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina, Missouri, Arizona, Utah, Kansas, and Oklahoma have passed drug-testing laws for welfare recipients. The measures vary from state to state, but the rationales are almost always the same. “It protects hard-earned taxpayer dollars from enabling a dangerous habit,” said Alabama state Sen. Trip Pittman in support of his drug-testing proposal. And North Carolina state Rep. Dean Arp defended his bill as a way to “end a bad practice of supporting active drug abusers with the hard-earned money of law-abiding North Carolinians.”

The problem, however, is that this isn’t a problem.

The vast majority of people on public assistance aren’t drug users and aren’t addicted to any illegal substances. In one study, only 3.6 percent of recipients satisfied the screening criteria for drug abuse and dependence. In another, among people who received food stamps, the rate was similarly low.

You can see this in the poor record for drug-testing programs. In the first year of Utah’s program, for instance, only 12 people showed evidence of drug use after a mandatory screening, at a cost of $25,000. And in Florida, from 2011 to 2012, just 108 of the 4,086 people who took a drug test failed—a rate of 2.6 percent—at a cost of nearly $46,000 to taxpayers.

Welfare drug tests waste money and add new stigma to public assistance. Still, Republicans push and support them, a bad “solution” to an imaginary problem.

To be clear, this isn’t an instance of good ideas and bad ideas, where a problem exists, and lawmakers have done a poor job of fixing it. No, with their drug tests, Walker and other Republicans have launched an assault on a problem—drug-addled welfare users—that doesn’t exist. But this isn’t the first time Republicans have attacked a fake problem with real—and harmful—policy.

Take voter fraud. A rallying cry for Republicans, the specter of fraudulent voting has justified a whole host of strict identification laws. “Voter fraud is a well-documented reality in American elections,” wrote Kris Kobach, the Republican secretary of state for Kansas, which has one of the toughest voter ID laws in the country. He continued: “Evidence of voter fraud is present in all 50 states, and public confidence in the integrity of elections is at an all-time low.”

Likewise, in their book Who’s Counting?, columnist John Fund and Republican lawyer Hans von Spakovsky declare that “Election fraud, whether it’s phony voter registrations, illegal absentee ballots, vote-buying, shady recounts, or old-fashioned ballot-box stuffing, can be found in every part of the United States.” To that end, von Spakovsky is a vocal supporter for voter ID laws, which he calls “a commonsense reform intended to protect the integrity of the election process for all candidates.”

To that apparent end, lawmakers in 19 states have passed a bevy of restrictive voting measures, including photo ID requirements and an end to same-day registration. In Wisconsin, for example, a Scott Walker–backed law reduced early voting on weeknights and eliminated them on weekends, placing a huge burden on urban precincts throughout the state.

Again, this was unnecessary. We don’t need to fight voter fraud because it doesn’t exist, or at least, it doesn’t exist at a scale that requires drastic action. Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, tracked every instance of voter fraud from 2000 to present. He found 31 incidents out of one billion ballots cast. Put another way, you’re more likely to see a UFO or get killed by lightning than you are to witness in-person voter fraud—the kind supposedly “prevented” by voter ID laws. Still, “protecting the ballot” is a priority for Republicans, regardless of what it means for voter access and participation.

Then there is the fake problem of bad abortion clinic design. In states like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, lawmakers have passed targeted regulations of abortion providers (“TRAP” laws), which—as my colleague Amanda Marcotte described—“single out abortion clinics for medical regulations no other clinics that provide similarly low-risk services need to obey.” Examples include hospital-admitting privileges for clinics that perform first trimester abortions—which have minimal risk of major complications—and onerous building requirements that have little to do with safety; in 2013, Virginia required clinics performing first trimester abortions to expand their parking lots.

Now, tens of millions of Americans oppose abortion, and it’s clear these laws are meant to reduce its availability. On paper, at least, the goal is to—in the words of one Republican lawmaker—“protect the right of women having an abortion to have it in a healthy, safe environment.” But there’s no epidemic of unhealthy, unsafe clinics, either in Alabama or nationwide; a House Republican investigation of abortion clinics—following the Kermit Gosnell trial—uncovered little in the way of misconduct. Overwhelmingly, authorities already heavily monitored abortion providers, long before this new wave of targeted regulation.

If this were just rhetoric—if Republicans were just talking about voter fraud, addicts on welfare, and out-of-control abortion clinics—it would be tolerable. But on each score, the GOP has pushed policies that, over the past four years, have discouraged voting, stripped benefits from low-income Americans, and limited abortion access.

In other words, the GOP might be fighting fake problems, but they provide real excuses for the most draconian parts of the Republican agenda.