Craig Shirley Does the Disabled



Shirley is the guy whose PR firm created the newly formed Disabled Americans for

Death Tax Repeal. Disabled Americans for Death Tax Repeal ran a full-page ad in

The Wall Street Journal and Washington Times to lobby Congress to abolish the

federal estate tax.

According to its press release, the group was formed to refute an "a misguided

advertising campaign group of multi-millionaires and billionaires called

‘Responsible Wealth’ who want to preserve the federal estate tax claiming it

would be an ‘unfortunate legacy’ for America’s future generations to inherit

family money and property."


was deeply offended by the callous and heartless comments made by this group,"

said Erin O’Leary, President of Disabled Americans for Death Tax Relief. "I take

offense that this group of wealthy elite should term helping people like me an

‘unfortunate legacy’ and that I shouldn’t be allowed to keep the money my family

has earned to offset future medical expenses." The group cites the need to allow

mothers and fathers to assist their disabled children with long-term care needs

after their death.

Offended by O’Leary’s comments I asked around disability circles as to who this

O’Leary fellow might be. None had heard of him. Investigation of Shirley turned

up quite a cornucopia of insight however. Much of Shirley’s work comes from

various conservative groups that want him to get their views on talk radio, like

the NRA. In recent years, he has worked for the Kuwaiti government and for

interests connected to Haiti’s provisional military regime. The press contact on

the Disabled Americans for Death Tax Repeal is Diana Banister, also the contact

for a "free speech" anti-campaign finance reform effort. George Stephanopoulos

tagged Shirley "an adviser to the Dole campaign, a paid agent to the tobacco

lobby, a paid agent of the gun lobby." The Washington Post reported that some

say Shirley — like so many prominent Washington conservatives, a veteran of the

Reagan-era National Conservative Political Action Committee — was left out of

the Dole campaign because he is too much the in-your-face operative for a

campaign aiming for a moderate image. Perhaps, but he is certainly behind the

George W. Bush estate tax repeal agenda.

Rarely do I co-write op-eds for newspapers, but I knew a quadriplegic

conservative who had served under Bush Sr. and was not a believer in repealing

the estate tax and thought we might be successful in getting a rebuttal printed

if not in the Wall Street Journal (Washington Times was definitely out), in the

Washington Post.

Offended by the obvious manipulation of this small group of disabled persons by

the Shirley PR machine and driven on by the unnecessary subsequent apologies of

the members of Responsible Wealth who were made to feel embarrassed that they

had not given any thought to the disability angle of their position, we co-wrote

the following editorial:

Disability "Death Tax" Deception

Recently, a few vocal disabled persons have been claiming publicly that the

estate tax should be repealed because it harms the disabled population. These

individuals have been recruited by a sophisticated public relations effort

sponsored by wealthy interests that wish to perpetuate their wealth

indefinitely. The claim is that millions of individuals have left major estates

for the medical expenses of their children or relatives with disabilities, and

these estates are being taxed away. This contention simply is not plausible. The

estate tax is a tax imposed only on extremely wealthy individuals when they die

— less than 2% of taxpayers (representing fewer than 43,000 estates in 1997)

pay this tax. And two-thirds of the estate tax is paid by the richest 0.2% of

taxpayers. While it is true that many disabled persons have major health care

expenses, the vast majority are from families of modest means. It is certain

that a very small percentage of the disabled population receives inheritances

from estates above the current $675,000 exclusion. And by 2006, the exclusion

for most estates will climb to $1 million. It is not possible that 4 million

disabled people could be adversely affected, as claimed by the repeal

proponents. In the war of rhetoric, the estate tax has been labeled the "death

tax" by proponents who wish to obscure the issue. Who could oppose repeal of a

tax on death? The problem is that this is not a tax on death; it is a tax on

wealth accumulated during life, and it is the essential linchpin that attempts

to ensure a playing field that is not grossly unfair. Even with the estate tax,

overall wealth and income gaps between Americans of different means remain wider

today than at any time since the end of World War II. The US has the greatest

wealth and poverty polarization of any "first world" nation. A 1997 study found

that about 10% of the US population own or control 77% of the nation’s total net

wealth (nonresidential), the top 1% controls 43%. The top 1% of population

maintains a larger share of wealth than the bottom 90%, with the top 10% owning

over twice as much as the rest of the citizenry. As a group, people with

disabilities are among the poorest of all Americans. Based on data from the 1995

Current Population Survey, 38.3% of working-age adults with severe work

disabilities (i.e., unable to work due to a disability) live in poverty,

compared with 30% of those limited in their ability to work and 10.2% of those

not limited in work. The 1998 National Organization on Disability (NOD)/Harris

survey found that 33% of disabled persons live in households with incomes of

less than $15,000; only 12% of adults without disabilities live in such

households. According to these data, disabled people are three to four times as

likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. Presumably, if these

individuals had family members with substantial means, these family members

would be raising their economic circumstances above the poverty line before

leaving an inheritance. The traditional smokescreen always raised to justify the

elimination of the estate tax is that it forces the next generation to sell the

family farm or business. Just as that problem (if real) could be remedied by

targeted solutions, the new smokescreen concerning taxation of estates needed by

disabled persons could be remedied by legislation that would allow special needs

trust funds to be exempt for such purposes. We should analyze how many disabled

persons are actually being harmed by the estate tax, and remedy their problem to

the extent justified. We will probably find that the problem is not nearly as

large as is being portrayed. Further, abolishing the estate tax may cause new

problems, such as eroding government revenues available for disability programs

upon which the less well off disabled persons rely. Using disabled people to

front for the interests of the wealthiest members of our society is an outrage

and a disgrace.



op-ed never saw the light of day. This stunned my co-writer, who said he always

got his right of center opinions printed whenever he submitted one and he was

flattened by how "arrogant" the Post had been with him. Was I surprised? Well

after some thought, no. Craig Shirley had paid for his free speech and I

suspected none of the newspapers wanted to buck a prospective paying advertiser

like Shirley by printing another point of view. Paying for the "right" to free

speech seemed to be the only way to overcome the impasse, and we, unlike

Disabled Americans for Death Tax Repeal, being a part of the less well-off

disabled population could not afford that luxury.

Andrew Batavia is a

professor in the School of Policy and Management of Florida International

University and former executive director of the National Council on


Marta Russell is the author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the

Social Contract. She can be reached at







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