Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

The Legislative Legacy of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) (1932-2009)

Some would say that, like his brothers Jack and Bobby, Ted Kennedy’s real gift was his ability to inspire others.  His detractors, and even some of his admirers, would  say that his legacy must include the way his personal failings helped in the decline of political liberalism. 

But surely a major part of Ted Kennedy’s legacy,  as the 3rd longest serving U.S. Senator, was the legislation he helped pass.  15, 235 votes in the U.S. Senate–seldom missing one until this last year with cancer. 2,500 bills authored.  552 co-sponsored bills passed into law (most with a Republican co-sponsor–Kennedy’s ability to search among his ideological foes and find common ground–even if only on a single issue–was legendary).

Here is a partial list of milestone legislation that Ted Kennedy had a hand in passing.

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Introduced in 1961 by JFK and championed by LBJ, Bobby and Ted Kennedy ushered its passage through the U.S. Senate.)
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • The Immigration Reform Act of 1965.
  • The Voting Rights Act Extension of 1970.
  • The Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Act of 1972. (The WIC program has been called one of the most successful by advocates against hunger and poverty.  Kennedy kept pushing for greater funding so that everyone who qualified could participate, but he was often straining into a headwind which only liked government to spend on military matters.)
  • The Refugee Act of 1980.
  • The Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1982.
  • The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987.
  • The Immigration Act of 1990.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1991.
  • The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (Introduced and written by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), but pushed out of committee by Ted Kennedy.)
  • No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. (This is one law in which Kennedy felt robbed. Last minute changes were made which he felt hurt the final legislation.)
  • Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002. (It is worth noting that Ted Kennedy vocally opposed the invasion of Iraq and refused to vote for its authorization in the U.S. Senate–and was right in all his predictions. This at a time when most of his fellow elected Democrats were afraid of appearing “soft on terrorism” if they didn’t follow Bush off his Iraq cliff like so many lemmings.)
  • Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act of 2002.
  • Matthew Shephard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007.
  • Civil Rights Act of 2008.

He has called the battle for universal healthcare in this country the “cause of his life.” He did not live to see that cause come to fruition and he later regretted walking away from a Nixon plan in 1974 that was almost identical to the Obama plan, now, public option in competition with private insurers. Kennedy wanted a single payer system that expanded Medicare to cover everyone and thought he could get it–and never realized until much later that the tides were turning in the other direction.  But let us look at the many things he did get accomplished to improve the health or ordinary citizens.

It began shortly after he was elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election to replace his brother, Jack, who vacated the Senate to become U.S. president. A plane crash broke Ted Kennedy’s spine and nearly cost him his life. Because of his wealth, he had fantastic care and physical therapy that led to a nearly full recovery.  But he reflected on what would have been the case, had he been too poor to afford this care.  So, the first thing he did on return to the U.S. Senate was sponsor the creation of a network of free clinics across the U.S.–but he soon realized that this was not enough. (Note: Lack of federal funding has  led most of these to close.)

  • Creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
  • Medical Device Amendments of 1976.
  • Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) of 1985–allows workers whose employers provide them with health insurance to temporarily take  that with them if they lose their job or must change jobs.
  • Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act of 1990 (Ryan White CARE Act. Must be renewed or lapse early this September!)
  • National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993.
  • Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) of 1994 (Made blocking women from entering health clinics where abortions are performed a federal offense.  Abortion opponents can exercise their free speech in opposition, but must not keep women from medical services, including legal abortions.)
  • Health Inurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPA).
  • Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997.
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) 1997.
  • Healthcare Research and Quality Act of 1999.’
  • Children’s Health Act of 2000.
  • Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act of 2001.
  • Project BioShield Act of 2003.
  • Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2005.
  • Family Opportunity Act of 2006.
  • Minority Health and Health Disparities Elimination Act of 2006.
  • FDA Amendments Act of 2007.
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008.

Kennedy also championed things that did not pass–but paved the way for future battles.  For over 30 years he championed the Equal  Rights Amendment–which would finally end gender based discrimination in America.  He championed ending the poll tax in 1964 and lost–but 2 years later the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax as unconstitutional.  He pushed for stronger schools–including a shift away from funding public education primarily through local property taxes since these lead inevitably to rich schools and poor schools. He fought for the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons.

Though a military veteran from a family of WWII veterans, Ted Kennedy mostly opposed wars, including pushing for lower military budgets, opposing the Vietnam War, both Gulf Wars, American secret support for “hidden wars,” and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. He opposed Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program as a violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  He worked against the militarization of space, seeing it as a betrayal of the space program’s peaceful purposes instituted by his brother, Jack.  He worked for a full employment economy, even running against Pres. Jimmy Carter (D-GA) in 1980 (contributing to Carter’s loss against Reagan) because Kennedy disagreed with Carter’s fiscal conservatism in the face of massive unemployment.  He was a champion of peace in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland, finally living to see that one achieved.  He was a champion of religious liberty and church-state separation.  Invited to debate these matters with Rev. Jerry Falwell  at Falwell’s Liberty University, Kennedy warned against setting precedents for government favoritism in matters of religion since “today’s Moral Majority can easily become tomorrow’s persecuted minority.” He drew the distinction between religious witness to government (which he strongly supported) and the attempt by churches and other religious institutions to use the power of the state to enforce moralities they could not PERSUADE people to adopt themselves.

Yeah. He had his faults.  A binge drinker and long-rumored womanizer, he pled guilty to leaving the scene of  a fatal accident at Chappaquiddick where he had driven his car drunkenly off a bridge and a woman on his staff died in the car.  Many have suspected that he was guilty at least of manslaughter here and the full truth will probably never be known.  I grew up in a region where Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter in 198o resulted in huge sales of “Teddy for Lifeguard” bumperstickers.  Years later, Kennedy was drunk (and one witness said walking around pantless!) at his Palm Beach, FL vacation home when his nephew was accused  of rape. (The nephew was aquitted and Ted never charged with any crime, but this incident led to a loss of influence for years.)

Shakespeare had Marc Antony say of Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.” But I want to plead for the converse for Sen. Ted Kennedy.  May the GOOD he did live on after him and multiply and the evil he did–whatever extent that was in truth–be buried along with him.  Shouldn’t that be a Christian attitude toward all of us mere mortals?

August 30, 2009 - Posted by | Obituaries, U.S. politics


  1. Michael,

    Thanks for this piece. This really reminds us of the impact that Ted Kennedy had on social reform. Well done.

    Hope to see you at Shalom 09 in Cleveland, TN.



    Comment by Terry Johns | September 2, 2009

  2. Terry, I’d love to come to Shalom ’09, especially since it is so close. But we are buying a house this month and that will eat up both my money and time off from work.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 2, 2009

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