Senator leaves long legacy on rights issues
By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter
The right to vote, at age 18.
Increasing the minimum wage.
Employment opportunities for the disabled.
Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy helped make these civil rights and quality of life initiatives possible. The senator passed away at the age of 77 late Tuesday night.
History will remember Kennedy for many reasons but it’s his legislative achievements that will have the most lasting impact on the every day lives of Americans. In his 47 years in the Senate, Kennedy was a champion for civil rights, immigration, and health care reform. Kennedy authored more than 2,500 bills during his career and a few hundred became laws, according to his senate press office. The following is just a handful of Kennedy’s accomplishments to expand the rights of people in the United States.
Kennedy pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited discrimination in housing, employment, education and public accommodations. In later years, he would continue to lead legislation to expand the protections in this act. Although, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1988, Kennedy successfully led the charge for a congressional override. The Civil Rights Restoration Act required than any organization that receives federal funds must follow federal civil rights laws.
In 1991 he was the chief sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which provided additional protection and remedies in cases of intentional job discrimination and workplace harassment.
Kennedy also played a role in expanding voting rights, supporting the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The senator fought to eliminate the poll tax by proposing it as an amendment to the act. The poll tax, a tax that had to be paid in order to vote, was one of hurdles that prevented many lower income residents and African-Americans from voting. The amendment to eliminate the tax didn’t make it into the final bill, but the Supreme Court later declared the poll tax unconstitutional in 1966.
During the Vietnam War in 1970, Kennedy pushed to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, arguing that if U.S. residents were old enough to fight and die for their country they should have the right to vote. Kennedy was the chief sponsor of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1982, which were designed to increase minority representation in government. He was also the chief sponsor of the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act, which provided language assistance to Latino, Asian and Native American citizens with limited English skills at the polls.
The senator was also a champion for those with disabilities. Kennedy was one of the chief sponsors of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits employers from discriminating against those with disabilities in the employment process and requires public accommodations for the disabled. The law opened the doors for the disabled to have more employment opportunities and to live fuller lives. Prior to that, Kennedy supported the passage of amendments to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibit discrimination against the disabled and children in the sale or rental of housing.
Kennedy was one of the key supporters of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects women from discrimination in educational institutions and expanded women’s athletics at colleges and universities. The senator also sponsored the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which improved the way the criminal justice system responds to victims and provides increased services to them. Kennedy was one of the Senate leaders in the passage of the 2008 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The act expands the time period to sue an employer for pay discrimination.
The Equal Rights Amendment, which would add wording to guarantee the rights under the Constitution to women, has been pushed by Kennedy every year since 1982.
In the early ‘90s, Kennedy sponsored the Family Medical Leave Act. Despite its passage in Congress twice and two presidential vetoes, Kennedy kept pushing for the legislation which was eventually signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The Family Medical Leave Act requires employers to allow employees to take unpaid leave to care for a newborn, or personal or family medical issues.
The minimum wage was increased 16 times during Kennedy’s time in the Senate. He led the most recent push in 2007, which raised the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25. It was the first change in the wage in a decade. He also played a role in the passage of the Pension Protection Act of 2006.
The Immigration Act of 1965 reformed U.S. immigration policy, by eliminating the national origin quotas that were in the law. The quota system, which was based on race and ancestry, tended to favor immigrants from European countries. The act gradually phased out this system and created a system based on immigrant skills and family relationships. It was a turning point for immigration in this country. In 1968, Kennedy sponsored the Bilingual Education Act, which provided funding for bilingual education programs in schools to help immigrant children.
Kennedy authored the Refugee Act of 1980, which improved U.S. policy toward refugees fleeing from war by establishing a more equitable admissions process, and more humanitarian assistance with resettlement.
Kennedy called healthcare reform the cause of his life and gave his first speech on it in 1969. What followed were numerous acts to expand health care and quality of life. Among these are the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA); Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Kennedy was also a leader in creating the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program (WIC), which offers food, nutrition counseling and health access.
Senator Orrin Hatch and Kennedy were the driving forces behind the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act of 1990, which created a federal program for people with HIV and AIDS in the U.S. It provided federal funding to states to develop programs geared toward early diagnosis and home care, as well as emergency funding to cities hardest hit by the epidemic. The act has been reauthorized repeatedly over the years.