Today’s beginning of the “shutdown” of the U.S. federal government tops an icy chapter in the relationship between our branches of government.
President Nixon entered office as the first President since Zachary Taylor in 1848, with both houses of Congress controlled by his opposition – a seemingly unprecedented legislative obstacle.
Yet many of the most lasting, influential, landmark legislation of the 20th century was passed and signed during the Nixon years. How? The answer is simple: Nixon knew that working with Congress was essential to accomplishing his administration’s goals – and he knew how to do it.
RN knew how to work with Congress; here, he is joined in the Blue Room by House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill, Speaker Carl Albert, and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford.
A seasoned man of the Congress – he spent 14 years as a Congressman, Senator and President of the Senate as Vice President – RN knew the inner workings of each chamber, what made the members tick, and surrounded himself with able and confident congressional liaisons.
He was able to work with Congress, overcoming ideological and stark political differences to secure the passage of such monumental laws as the Environmental Protection Act, the first step to reducing America’s air pollution; the National Cancer Act, apportioning billions to the study of cancer with real lifesaving results; his vast revenue sharing policies, which distributed $83 billion to the states for better and more appropriate uses; and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first attempt by the U.S. government to level the playing field for disabled Americans. The list goes on.
The passage of such bills was not easy; securing the votes required hours of laborious negotiations and conferences to hash out details and assuage the concerns of both sides. In the case of the Rehabilitation Act, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last week, President Nixon twice vetoed similar measures – not out of disdain for the plight of the disabled, but because of his concern that Congress was spending too much hard-earned taxpayer money without ensuring real results. The law served as the basis for the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, signed in 1990.
The bottom line is that President Nixon knew that he had to work with Congress to accomplish his objectives to build a lasting structure of peace and a more just society at home. It wasn’t a chore for him, or an obstacle; it represented the beauty of American democracy, members on both sides of the aisle sitting down to do what was best for the nation.
Amid this partisan squabble, it might be well if we would ask ourselves: What Would Nixon Do?