A liberal lion, champion of health care and employee rights, roars his last
During his 47-year Senate career, he weathered scandals and tragedies, surviving notorious setbacks that would have ruined most politicians. In the process, he established a reputation for strong liberal principles, even as he became famous for his willingness to work with political opponents. And nowhere was this more visible than in his attention to the American worker.
It may seem paradoxical that Kennedy, who came from a famously wealthy family, should place his legislative focus on employment fairness for poorer citizens. He shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1991 through the Senate, a measure designed to fight employee discrimination; five years later, he championed a minimum-wage increase.
In Kennedy's world, the line between politics and finance was often invisible, and he used commerce as a tool for public policy. In 1974, he pushed a Federal Election Campaign Act Amendment that set limits on campaign contributions made by individuals, political parties, and lobbyists.The measure also established the Federal Election Commission, tasked with enforcing election laws, overseeing funding, and ensuring campaign-finance disclosure. In addition to redressing issues of back-room political funding, the law pushed smaller-scale campaign funding efforts that encouraged candidates to reach out to lower-income voters.
Kennedy also used money as a tool of international policy. After a trip to apartheid-era South Africa, he was instrumental in passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which outlawed U.S. companies' investment in that nation and banned direct flights there. The law inspired similar legislation in Japan and Europe, pushing South Africa into a recession that some observers credit with having ended the policy of white rule.
But Kennedy's most significant contributions to economic parity, and his greatest battle, was his lifelong fight for universal health care. After he nearly died in a 1964 plane crash that confined him to a hospital bed for months, the senator began his crusade with a new recognition of the financial hardships that sudden or ongoing illness could place on a household.
Although Kennedy died before reaching his goal of universal health insurance, his 45-year struggle put him at the forefront of numerous groundbreaking laws intended to reduce health's financial impact. He worked on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibited discrimination based on physical disability (effectively extended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect the disabled). He also helped push the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, which helped provide funds for AIDS treatment to people who couldn't afford it.
Kennedy's health-care focus also extended to broader-based insurance coverage. In 1985, he worked closely on the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), which required insurers to offer coverage to terminated employees. For employees who moved between jobs, he helped pass the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which also laid the groundwork for electronic medical records.
Although Kennedy spent much of his life struggling to move beyond the long shadows cast by his older brothers and his own personal failings, his long legislative career had a greater impact on Americans' daily lives than anyone else in his family. While his brother Robert was more eloquent in defending of the rights of the poor, and his brother John remains a more enduring symbol to the underclass, Teddy was their strongest and most effective advocate. If universal health care comes to pass in the United States, it will owe much of its success to the efforts of Edward Kennedy.