JONATHAN COHN JULY 27, 2010
Imagine a hotel, a bus, or a movie theater that wasn't wheelchair accessible. Or imagine a bank that didn't have provisions for helping customers that were visually impaired. You don't see these things much nowadays, but as recently as twenty years ago, they were common and perfectly legal in many states. Then the federal government passed the American with Disabilities Act, requiring that governments and businesses accommodate the needs of the disabled--not as an act of charity but an act of civic obligation, so that these people could fully participate in society.
The ADA turned 20 years old on Monday. And the anniversary is a poignant reminder not only that government can work but also that, once upon a time, Republicans were willing to embrace it. Lobbyists for the business community, including the Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses, had predicted that the requirements would cripple employers. Conservatives had warned that the law would unleash a flood of lawsuits. But after a large bipartisan majority passed the bill, a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, signed and implemented it.
To be sure, the critics were not totally wrong: Some businesses suffered and some lawyers got business. And that's despite the fact that the law included compromises disability advocates protested. But, overall, the law is something the vast majority of us rightly celebrate--taking from it not just legal instructions but also even some moral cues for behavior. Reading back over the clips, I was struck by one article about a disabled college student in the early 1990s, who observed that people were less hostile when he took city buses because wheelchair riders had become so common. Laws can't change the way people feel. But they can change the environment in ways that will, in turn, change the way people feel.
But what if the ADA were up for a vote today? Noting that Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul has come out against the ADA, Michael Tomasky, writing on his blog for the Guardian, is skeptical that it would pass this time around:
Paul is more extreme than your average Republican, but it does make one wonder whether today's Republican Party would have supported the ADA. 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 think Tomasky is right, in part because of what Republicans (and, yes, some conservative Democrats) are doing today. No, they're not trying to repeal the ADA. But they are blocking efforts to help states avoid massive budget cuts, many of which will affect services for the disabled. Here, for example, is what Progress Illinois reported yesterday on its blog:
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark federal bill that extended basic civil rights protections to people with disabilities. In Illinois, the anniversary is a solemn one: As a result of the state's budget crisis, the Department of Human Services will undergo $310 million in cuts, likely starving many non-Medicaid funded community mental health and disability services. An estimated 70,000 people with mental illness -- who are also protected by the ADA -- could lose their state-subsidized services in coming months.
Like the group says, some birthday present.
Update: Steve Benen is even more skeptical than Tomasky:
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. ... 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."