Congress and the Fabric of Our Lives

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Wednesday, June 16, 1999
Like many Americans this past summer, I watched the electrifying march by the U.S. women’s soccer team to victory in the World Cup with a mixture of awe and pride. The awe I’m sure you understand. The pride was a little more complicated than you might think. I was taken, of course, by the athleticism and skill shown by the American players, but I was equally delighted by something most Americans probably didn’t recognize: the role that Congress had played in what I was watching. 

It has been almost 30 years since we passed the measure known as "Title IX." I was still a relatively junior member of the House when we voted on the bill, and although the rhetoric on the floor was high-minded and full-blown, as it tends to be at such moments, I’m not sure anyone fully grasped the depth of the changes we were enacting. It is taking nothing away from the extraordinary accomplishments of the women on the soccer field to say that they could thank Congress, in part, for the path that led them there. 

"Title IX" refers to a law passed in 1972, a set of education amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It requires that women be given an equal opportunity to participate in all programs run by colleges and schools that receive federal funds. One of its results, the full measure of which we are just beginning to enjoy, is the explosion of women’s sports. In the wake of the U.S. soccer players’ victory, President Clinton referred to them as "Daughters of Title IX," and he was right. 

It has been popular of late to dismiss Congress as an irrelevant institution, full of people who love the limelight but contribute little to the national well-being. Not long before I left Congress early this year, for example, a group of constituents visiting my office in Jeffersonville, Indiana, told me exactly that: Congress has nothing to do with our daily lives, they informed me, except when it wants to tax or regulate us. As it happened, I knew these people fairly well, so I responded by asking them a few questions. How had they gotten to my office? On the interstate highway, they said. Had any of them gone to the local university? Yes, they said, admitting they’d gotten some help from federal student loans. Did any of them have grandparents who were on Social Security and Medicare? Well sure, they replied, picking up on where I was headed. Their lives had been profoundly affected by Congress. If you know how to look, I suggested, the evidence of Congress’ contributions is all around you. 

Just what those contributions ought to be, of course, is the subject of hot debate, and rightly so. Americans have this conversation all the time, in Washington and at political gatherings around the country, and it is how we remain on course as a nation. 

But too often of late we’ve gone beyond that, to dismissing Congress as nothing better than a pain in the neck. So this fall, as Congress gets back to work on all the issues facing it — tax cuts, gun control, the federal budget, the patients’ bill of rights — try a little experiment. Instead of dismissing the debates as esoteric and meaningless, think about how they might affect your life. What if Congress cuts federal funding for basic research into high technology and other sciences? Will it just be trimming unneeded fat from the budget, or will it be doing away with work that could undergird our growth in the 21st Century — and possibly, a few years down the road, provide you with a job? Or think about education: Should Congress find ways of helping parents choose the best school for their children, even if it means using public funds to allow children to attend parochial schools? These are hardly questions that are irrelevant to our daily lives. 

But this is what Congress does. When it takes up issues like the education of our children, or the quality of the water we drink, or our ability to care for our parents as they age —or whether women should be treated equally by college programs — it is doing its best to reflect and to improve the quality of our lives as individuals and the strength of our nation. So as the budget and other issues come up for debate in Washington this fall, and those of us who pay attention to such things start discussing them with our friends and neighbors, let’s make sure we don’t fall into the trap of believing there’s nothing at stake. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)