Congress, Fifty Years Ago

October 2, 2015

I was reflecting on the sorry state of affairs in Congress the other day, about the time I heard Cultural Capital: 50 Years of Investment in U.S. Arts and Humanities, on NPR. The story recounted the establishment of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in September 1965. Several thoughts tumbled out of me.

First, we’re seeing many 50-year anniversaries in 1965. Some are not so good—the Watts riot, for example—but many are positive. In addition to the afore-mentioned endowments, 1965 saw the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Freedom of Information Act. Just stop for a moment and imagine life without this highly productive Congress.

People debate how the endowments spend their money, and there’s a case to be made—not a good one, in my opinion—for not spending on arts and humanities when people are hungry and homeless. Imagine, though, the wealthiest nation on the planet without museums. Cultural institutions. Opportunities to stretch the limits of our knowledge and creativity.

Medicare and Medicaid. Socialist plots they were, and “keep the government away from my Medicare may be the funniest (and saddest line) ever heard about the federal government.

We’re learning all about life without the Voting Rights Act, as it gets eviscerated, piece by piece. Here’s Alabama, Birthplace of the Voting Rights Act, Is Once Again Gutting Voting Rights by Ari Berman for The Nation, with the story about what happens when the Supreme Court says, effectively, “Problem solved, go forth and discriminate (or not); you choose because: freedom.”

The Higher Education Act brought us Pell grants, along with the federal student loan program. Big, big, big, for millions and millions of people, and for all of us, for our nation benefits when we have an educated populace.

And just imagine a federal government orders of magnitude more secretive than the one we have today. And state and local governments, too, for most have FOIA-similar laws. We can make fun of the process, and “fellow traveling laws”—think about open meeting requirements—have been poorly designed, but FOIA plays a significant role in keeping government more honest than it would otherwise be.

Second, the anniversaries and my work with an educational institution brought to mind Senator Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.). Senator Pell was the shepherd for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and the funding of grants for college students. (Federal programs rarely get named for their advocate: My only other example is the Fulbright Program, named for Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.).)

Senator Pell was an unlikely candidate for such success, at least by contemporary measures. He was certainly quirky, and definitely “to the manner born.” (His relative, Eve Pell, wrote We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante.) That said, he went to Washington in 1961 to make a difference in people’s lives.* He was successful, despite a lack of noise and self-serving actions.

Back in the day Senator Pell was less unusual than he might seem today. He showed up, interested in governing to make life better for all of us.* Unfortunately, we see such motives far less often than we ought to now. Congress is full of itself for keeping government funded for another 90 days. Disgraceful!

Finally, I’m struck by the disconnect between solutions and their causes. Alas, that’s a subject for another day. Today, we should celebrate the fact that, 50 years ago, government worked, and even though some of what happened then has been dismantled, and much of what hasn’t been taken apart has not been allowed to keep up with changing times, we’re better for what happened then.

*The Pell grants I got 40 years ago paid for a chunk of my education. Later, as a result of my being an attorney, I had several contacts with Senator Pell. He was a delightful man, and I regret the fact that I did not thank him enough for the way in which his actions made difference in my life.

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