Documents: Contemporary America

Before passage of the Medicare and Medicaid Act of 1965, Americans had been required to fend for themselves when they became ill or aged. But in the 20th century, thinking about society’s responsibility to the ill and aged began to change as the nation became more industrialized, as more and more people were moving to cities (and away from families in the country), as the role of the extended family in people’s lives diminished, and as life expectancy rose. Then the Great Depression of the 1930s hit, leaving large segments of the population destitute. In response, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Social Security Act of 1935 which would provide at least a minimal income, financed by a payroll tax, for persons aged sixty-five and older as well as for widows and those with disabilities. However, health care was not included. According to the1950 census, the number of senior citizens in the U. S. had grown from 3 million 1n 1900 to 12 million in 1950. Two-thirds of older Americans had incomes of less than $1,000 annually, and only one in eight had health insurance. From 1950-1963, the number of older Americans went from 12 million to 17.5 million. During the same period, the cost of hospital care rose at a rate of nearly seven percent per year. As the nation entered the 1950s, those concerned with national health care decided that the best strategy to achieve such might be to concentrate on health care for the elderly rather than for the entire population and to do so through amendments to the existing Social Security law. Every time legislation to provide health care for older Americans, the American Medical Association vigorously fought against it. With the 1964 presidential election, the two candidates were poles apart on federal health care. President Johnson urged Medicare’s passage; Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, was adamantly against it. Lyndon Johnson won an extraordinary victory in November, 1964, and progressive-minded Democrats swept into Congress, giving Johnson overwhelming majorities in both chambers. Surprisingly, a long-time opponent of previously attempts to pass Medicare, Wilbur Mills, now saw the wisdom of medical care reform. In a brilliant stroke, he cobbled together the administration’s bill (hospital coverage), with a Republican substitute (doctors’ fees), and joined them with medical assistance for the poor (Medicaid). Mills characterized it as a ‘three-layer cake,’ and it soon became the law of the land.” Mills introduced the measure in the House where it passed by a vote of 313 to 115. After a lively debate in the Senate, the legislation passed by a vote of 68-21. In order to honor former President Truman for his long-time support of this kind of legislation, President Johnson chose the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, as the site for the signing ceremony. With Truman at Johnson’s side, the former President was enrolled as Medicare’s first beneficiary. The Social Security Act Amendments of 1965 contained two key parts: Title XVIII, Medicare and Title XIX, Medicaid. Title XVIII, Medicare had two basic components. Part A provided Hospital Insurance which covered hospital, skilled nursing, and home health care services. Part A was to be funded by payroll taxes under Social Security, and beneficiaries were to be those 65 and older who are eligible for Social Security. Part B provided Supplemental Medical Insurance to cover the health care services not covered by Part A, generally those provided on an outpatient basis. These include X-rays, diagnostic tests, chemotherapy and dialysis, as well as such necessities as canes, walkers, prosthetic devices, and eyeglasses. It covers those eligible for Social Security and is funded by general revenues and patient deductibles. Title XIX, Medicaid provides health insurance with benefits similar to those provided for Medicare for persons of low income, regardless of age. Medicaid is funded jointly by federal and state governments with the federal government’s portion coming from general revenue funds rather than from payroll taxes. President George W. Bush signed into law the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003, creating the first major benefit expansion since the program was established in 1965.
Previous attempts by Congress to adopt immigration laws had relied on complex quota systems that usually favored Western Europe immigrants or limiting the number of immigrants based on a percentage of the number that were currently living in the U.S. By the early 1960s, there was talk of reforming the nation’s immigration policy. This was in part due to the growing strength of the civil rights movement in the U. S. and in part to the feeling of some U. S. leaders that such reform would help the nation’s appeal to the rest of the world in our “Cold War” competition with the Soviet Union. President John F. Kennedy spoke out in favor of reform in June, 1963, when he referred to the old quota system as “intolerable.” After Kennedy’s assassination, Congress began debating a bill co-sponsored by Representative Emanuel Celler (Democrat-New York) and Senator Philip Hart (Democrat-Michigan) and strongly supported by Senator Ted Kennedy (Democrat-Massachusetts). The law abolished the long-time quota system based on national origin which favored immigrants from Northern and Western Europe and marked a dramatic break with past immigration policy. It placed a much heavier emphasis on family reunification. It set an annual ceiling of 170,000 immigrants from nations of the Eastern Hemisphere and a limit of 20,000 per nation. Unlike the quota laws of previous years, it set an annual ceiling of 120,000 immigrants from nations of the Western Hemisphere but with no per-nation limits. It created an ordering of preferences in the distribution of visas with seven desirable qualifications including: family reunification, refugee status, professionals, artists, scientists, and skilled and unskilled laborers in occupations with insufficient labor supply in the U. S. According to some observers, the law had at least one unintended effect: massive illegal immigration across the southern border of the U. S. This was because the 120,000 annual ceiling on immigration from nations of the Western Hemisphere did not provide enough slots for the rapidly growing population of Mexico, many of whose residents decided to flee to the U. S. In the first five years after the 1965 Act’s adoption, immigration to the U. S. from Asian countries – especially those fleeing from war-torn Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia) – would more than quadruple. Under past U. S. immigration policy, Asian immigration had been largely barred. Other “Cold War” conflicts of the 60s and 70s saw many people fleeing poverty or the hardships of Communist regimes in Cuba, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere coming to the U. S. All told, in the three decades following passage of the 1965 law, more than 18 million legal immigrants entered the U. S., more than three times the number admitted over the preceding 30 years. By the end of the 20th century, the policy placed into effect by the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 had greatly changed the face of the nation’s population.
Congress outlined the purpose of the Clean Air Act of 1970 in Title I of the law: “to encourage or otherwise promote reasonable Federal, State, and local governmental actions … for pollution prevention.” The law states that “air pollution prevention … and air pollution control at its source is the primary responsibility of state and local governments,” However, in the law, Congress pledges to provide financial aid for “the development of cooperative federal, state, regional, and local programs to prevent and control air pollution.” Observers point out: “The law was passed at a time of growing environmental awareness in the U. S. On April 2, 1970, the first Earth Day took place as a grassroots movement to call the public’s attention to all forms of environmental degradation, and throughout the 1970s, numerous laws were passed to protect the nation’s environment.” Dense, visible smog surrounding several of the nation’s largest urban areas also prompted passage of the law as more and more Americans became concerned about health problems caused by air pollution. Congress had passed earlier laws in 1955, 1963, and 1967 dealing with air pollution, but the Clean Air Act of 1970, in reality a series of amendments to the 1963 law, expanded the federal government’s role. At about the same time that Congress was passing the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Nixon administration created the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and directed it to oversee the Clean Air Act. The law authorized the development of federal and state regulations to limit air pollution from stationary sources such as factories and from mobile sources such as cars and airplanes. The law established four plans aimed at stationary sources of pollution: (1) the National Ambient Air Quality Standards which targeted major chemical pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide; (2) the State Implementation Plans which required the states to develop methods to reduce air pollutants and to meet air quality standards and provided that if a state failed, or refused, to form such a plan, the federal government could administer the law in that state; (3) the New Source Performance Standards the purpose of which was to determine how much pollution should be allowed by industries in different regions of the nation, particularly at newly constructed industries; and (4) the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants which specified a list of almost 200 pollutants and directed the EPA to develop standards for controlling them.
Renamed in 2002 as the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in honor of Representative Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), the person recognized as its major author and sponsor, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 begins with these words: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” The law has been used to promote equity in education by making sure that girls and women receive equal resources and treatment in the classroom from the elementary to the university level and to lead the way in establishing women’s athletic programs. It also includes provisions that hold schools liable for sex discrimination and harassment which is defined as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. The law applies to every aspect of education programs such as admissions, recruitment, academics, employment, athletics, and student services. The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education is the primary federal agency responsible for overseeing the law. “Before Title IX, few opportunities existed for female athletes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) which was created in 1906 to format and enforce rules in men’s football but had become the ruling body of college athletics, offered no athletic scholarships for women and held no championships for women’s teams. Furthermore, supplies and funding were lacking. As a result, in 1972, there were just 30,000 women participating in NCAA sports, as opposed to 170,000 men. As to the significance or effect of Title IX, “since the enactment of Title IX, women’s participation in sports has grown exponentially. In high school, the number of girl athletes has increased from just 295,000 in 1972 to more than 2.6 million. In college, the number has grown from 30,000 to more than 150,000. In addition, Title IX is credited with decreasing the dropout rate of girls from high school and increasing the number of women who pursue higher education and complete college degrees.” (
Article I, Section 8 of the U. S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but Article II, Section 2 makes the President the Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the U. S. The last time Congress formally declared war was in World War II. Meanwhile, since World War II, the nation had been involved in undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam. Some American citizens and governmental figures had grown concerned by Presidents of the U. S. involving the nation in such wars without a formal congressional declaration of war.

Congress finally adopted the War Powers Resolution of 1973 over President Richard Nixon’s veto as a response to executive interpretation of, and action under, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Even though Congress had repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1971, some members felt that Congress needed to act to prevent future presidential action committing American armed forces abroad without congressional involvement. The War Powers Resolution provides that the President can only commit American forces abroad if Congress has declared war or has specifically authorized the President to do so or a national emergency exists because of an attack on the U. S., its territory, or its armed forces. Whenever possible, the law provides, the President shall consult with Congress before committing troops into hostilities. In the absence of a congressional declaration of war when American troops have been introduced abroad, the law states, the President within 48 hours must submit to the presiding officers of the Senate and the House a written report explaining the circumstances necessitating the commitment abroad and an estimate of the duration and scope of the involvement. Furthermore, the law provides, within 60 days after the President submits the written report, he must terminate the commitment abroad unless Congress has declared war or specifically authorized their continuation abroad or extended the 60-day period. However, the law states, the extension may only be for 30 days unless the President determines and certifies to Congress in writing that the safety of the armed forces requires their continued presence abroad.

The consensus has been that the War Powers Resolution has been largely ineffective in limiting presidential ability to commit troops abroad and has, in fact, authorized the President to commit troops abroad for 60 or 90 days.

President Richard Nixon in December, 1973, signed into law “An Act to Provide for the Conservation of Endangered and Threatened Species of Fish, Wildlife, and Plants, and for Other Purposes,” also known as the Endangered Species Act. For many years, individuals and groups in the United States had become concerned about the possibility of species such as the bison, the whooping crane, the bald eagle, as well as other species, becoming extinct. Although earlier efforts to protect certain specific species had been undertaken, there was a growing feeling among many of those concerned with the issue that a more comprehensive law aimed at protecting endangered species and their habitats was essential. The law makes it clear that a species cannot be listed as “endangered or threatened’ just because an individual or group says it is. Rather, it spells out in some detail how this is done and by whom. It provides for gathering data, conducting public hearings, notifying the public, and reviewing findings and past actions. Two agencies – the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – have been given the responsibility of enforcing the law. A portion of the law enumerates the main factors which determine if a species is listed as endangered: (1) whether the species is losing its habitat; (2) whether the species is being overused for commercial, scientific, or recreational purposes; and (3) whether the species’ numbers have been diminished because of disease or predators. As a general rule, either the Fish and Wildlife Service or a private individual or group can propose that a certain species be listed. However, the law provides that, “after the best scientific data available” is consulted, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determine if the species should be placed on the endangered list. The law dictates that a “recovery plan” for that species be implemented and that every five years whether the species should continue to be listed must be reviewed. Of great significance, and the cause of some controversy, the law not only protects the species but also its habitat. The law thus gives the government authority to determine that public or private land is habitat which must be preserved to protect an endangered species. This means, for instance, that a landowner can be restricted as to how he or she uses the land if that land is habitat for a species on the endangered list. The act was amended in 1978 to include the words ‘after taking into consideration the economic impact.’ Accordingly, ‘the Secretary of the Interior may exclude any area from critical habitat if he determines that the benefits of such exclusion outweigh the benefits of specifying such area as part of the critical habitat – with the caveat that he cannot do so if failure to designate such area as critical habitat will result in the extinction of the species concerned.’” Results published by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 has listed about 1,200 animals and 750 plants as endangered or threatened. Some species have made remarkable recoveries since being listed, including the peregrine falcon, the bald eagle, the whooping crane, the grizzly bear, the red wolf, the gray wolf, and the gray whale. Overall, about fifty species have been delisted, twenty-two of those because they have recovered and are no longer threatened or endangered.
Passed by Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the Community Reinvestment Act requires financial institutions to help meet the credit needs of the communities in which they operate, including low and moderate income neighborhoods, consistent with safe and sound operations. The law provides that a bank’s record in meeting the credit needs of its entire community be evaluated by the appropriate federal financial supervisory agency periodically, that the public can submit comments on a bank’s performance, and that the bank’s CRA performance record is considered when making decisions relative to that bank. Apparently, one of the main concerns of those who crafted the legislation, including its chief sponsor and principal proponent Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin), was “redlining,” the alleged practice of banks refusing to grant loans in certain neighborhoods involving significant risks such as a decline in the market value of property because of problems such as gangs, crime, and vandalism. It appeared also that many unsuccessful applicants were African Americans and Hispanics. Critics of the law argue that it forces banks to lend to people even if such loans cannot be justified on the basis of profitability. Some critics argue, for example, that the CRA, by encouraging banks to make risky loans, was responsible for the so-called “housing bubble” that contributed to the economic recession of 2008.
With the U. S. in a deep recession, Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan in 1980 ran against incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter who was seeking a second term. Reagan ran a campaign based on promises of lower taxes, a strong national defense, and less government involvement in individuals’ lives. After Reagan was elected President, in his First Inaugural Address in January,1981, he stressed the importance of courage and perseverance and elaborated on his belief that liberty thrived under limited government. He said: “We are a nation that has a government — not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government…”

He carried out his plan by threatening to veto any tax increase Congress passed. He successfully proposed tax cuts and reductions in funding for some domestic programs, while proposing increased spending on defense. Some historians credit Reagan’s policies for helping boost the U. S. economy by the mid-1980s. Critics, on the other hand, assert that Reagan’s tax plan unfairly benefited the wealthy and blamed “trickle-down economics” for producing large deficits that increased the national debt.

Reagan was re-elected to a second term in 1984 by one of the largest landslides in American political history.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in November, 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act is also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act in honor of its Senate and House sponsors, Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) and Representative Romano Mazzoli (D-Kentucky). The two major restrictive provisions in this 1986 law were: (1) sanctions in the form of fines for employers knowingly hiring, recruiting, or referring for a fee aliens not legally authorized to work in the U. S.; and (2) enhanced enforcement of U. S. borders by increased expenditures for equipment and personnel in order to regain control of the nation’s borders. A separate section of the act made it much easier to enter the United States. Against the advice of the INS, Congress created an experimental Visa Waiver pilot program allowing certain tourists and certain other nonimmigrant aliens to enter the U. S. without applying for a nonimmigrant visa. The program caught on, and, fifteen years later, became notorious when it became known that some of the terrorists who executed the mass murder on September 11, 2011, had entered under this program, which, in the meantime, had become greatly expanded. Another provision authorized legalization for immigrants who either entered the country illegally or entered legally on tourist or other visas and overstayed their authorized stay and had resided in the U. S. since January 1, 1982. This created a so-called amnesty program.
In 1988, the National Council on Disability, a council established by Congress to advise the President and the Congress on issues impacting persons with disabilities, drafted the original version of what became the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The Senate adopted the ADA by a vote of 91-6 and the House of Representatives did so by a vote of 377-28, and President George H. W. Bush signed it into law on July 26, 1990. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency with the job of enforcing the various provisions of the ADA. Section 2 of the law spells out Congress’ Findings: “The Congress finds that some 43,000,000 Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities, and this number is increasing as the population as a whole is growing older.” Historically, society has tended to isolate, segregate, and discriminate individuals with disabilities. The same Section 2 spells out the Purpose of the law: “It is the purpose of this Act to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” It also establishes the nation’s goals relative to persons with disabilities: “The nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals.”

Since the ADA was signed into law in 1990, its provisions, enforcement measures, and effectiveness have all come under scrutiny. Supporters have credited the ADA with improving the quality of life of millions of disabled citizens and opening new economic opportunities for disabled workers across the nation. In addition, historians have noted ‘the landmark civil rights law changed the way U. S. businesses and institutions understand the rights and abilities of disabled citizens.”

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in New York City, Washington, D. C., and Pennsylvania, the U. S. Congress by overwhelming votes in both chambers and little debate passed the U. S. A. PATRIOT Act (an acronym standing for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). President George W. Bush signed it into law. Its purpose was “to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.” The law greatly increased the authority and power of the executive branch of U. S. government. Specifically, the law expands the authority of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to gather information. Prior to passage of this law, the U. S. Code narrowly defined the circumstances under which authorities could engage in electronic eavesdropping. Telephone wiretaps, for example, had to be authorized by a court and could be used only to investigate serious criminal offenses. Under the PATRIOT Act, authorities can monitor both Internet and telephone activity without having to convince a judge that there was probable cause that the search would provide evidence of criminal activity. Also, before the PATRIOT Act, court approved wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance were limited to certain individuals and circumstances. Other provisions of the law expanded government’s authority to examine financial transactions, especially those involving foreign individuals and entities. The U. S. Department of Justice reported that less than three years after the law was enacted, it had allowed authorities to snag more than 300 terrorist suspects. Some portions of the law have been criticized as violations of the U. S. Constitution’s First, Fourth, or Fifth Amendments as well as the right to privacy. Without question, the U. S. A. PATRIOT Act has had an impact in several areas of American life. Congress has reauthorized the law more than once since 2001.
President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law in February, 2009. The legislation’s longer title reveals much about its content: “An Act making supplemental appropriations for job preservation and creation, infrastructure investment, energy efficiency and science, assistance to the unemployed, and state and local fiscal stabilization, for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, and for other purposes.” The impetus for the proposed legislation was the fact that by the latter part of 2007 and the early part of 2008, there was growing evidence of serious problems with the nation’s economy. As proposed by the Obama administration and introduced in Congress, the legislation had three immediate goals: (1) create new jobs and save existing ones; (2) spur economic activity and invest in long-term growth; and (3) foster accountability and transparency in government spending. The Recovery Act intended to achieve these goals by providing $787 billion (increased to $840 billion in 2011) in: (1) tax cuts and benefits for millions of working families and businesses; (2) funding for entitlement programs such as unemployment benefits; and (3) funding for federal contracts, grants, and loans. Here are two examples of how money has been spent: (1) “The General Services Administration has used $5.5billion in Recovery Act funds to convert federal buildings to high performance green buildings and to build new, energy-efficient federal offices, courthouses, and land ports of entry.” ( (2) “As of September 30, 2010, the Department of Education’s entire $97.4 billion in Recovery Act appropriations has been awarded. Grant recipients reported that approximately 275,000 education jobs, such as teachers, principals, librarians, and counselors, were served or created with this funding during the most recent quarter.” The stimulus included about $90 billion for clean energy, including wind, solar, and other renewables; energy efficiency in every form; advanced biofuels; electric vehicles; a smarter grid; and cleaner coal. While the stimulus isn’t the New Deal, it is similar in that it was a massive exercise in response to an economic collapse.