Twenty years later

TWENTY YEARS LATER…. Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disability Act, and Democrats honored the occasion with some worthwhile gestures. In Congress, for example, Rhode Island Rep. Jim Langevin (D) presided over the House of Representatives, which wouldn’t be especially noteworthy except for the fact that Langevin is a quadriplegic, and was the first person in a wheelchair to ever wield the gavel.

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Obama hosted an event on the South Lawn, celebrating the ADA as “one of the most comprehensive civil rights bills in the history of this country.”

“Today, as we commemorate what the ADA accomplished, we celebrate who the ADA was all about. It was about the young girl in Washington State who just wanted to see a movie at her hometown theater, but was turned away because she had cerebral palsy; or the young man in Indiana who showed up at a worksite, able to do the work, excited for the opportunity, but was turned away and called a cripple because of a minor disability he had already trained himself to work with; or the student in California who was eager and able to attend the college of his dreams, and refused to let the iron grip of polio keep him from the classroom — each of whom became integral to this cause.

“And it was about all of you. You understand these stories because you or someone you loved lived them. And that sparked a movement. It began when Americans no longer saw their own disabilities as a barrier to their success, and set out to tear down the physical and social barriers that were. It grew when you realized you weren’t alone. It became a massive wave of bottom-up change that swept across the country as you refused to accept the world as it was. And when you were told, no, don’t try, you can’t — you responded with that age-old American creed: Yes, we can.”

Around the same time, in Kentucky, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul, who opposes the Americans with Disability Act, decided to skip a local event commemorating the landmark legislation, choosing instead to go to a fundraiser with Jeb Bush.

Paul’s ADA opposition reminded Michael Tomasky to ask a good question: would the ADA pass today?

In 1990, it passed the Senate 76-8 and passed the House by unanimous voice vote. I think we can say with great confidence that those particular outcomes would never have happened today, and we’d have seen far more caterwauling about the impositions placed on business and so on.

I will grant that the ADA has cost businesses some money, and that there surely have been some nuisance lawsuits. But it’s made the US a better place. In 1990, the GOP saw this. Today’s GOP would never accept such regulatory “impositions” on the private sector. You might get eight or 10 of them to vote for such a bill, because they would make the decision as a party that overall they didn’t want to be seen as picking on people in wheelchairs, but the distance from only a handful of Republicans opposing that bill to Rand Paul’s comments in May is one marker of how extreme the GOP has become.

I’m not inclined to consider this a close call: the ADA would struggle to overcome a Republican filibuster if it were brought to the floor today. Twenty years ago, the legislation was championed by Democratic leaders like Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), but it also enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of Republicans like Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.). President George H.W. Bush was proud to sign that bill into law, and considered it one of the great achievements of his term.

But in 2010, the Republican base would very likely demand to know where in the Constitution it says Congress can pass a law protecting Americans with disabilities, and GOP lawmakers would no doubt ask that its provisions be voluntary, so as to not “destroy jobs.”