Congress and Your Daily Life

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002
From time to time, some major event comes along to remind us of how much we actually depend on the U.S. government. So it was after the Oklahoma City bombing, and so it’s been over the months since September 11, when citizens’ backing for Congress and the federal government, fueled by the war on terrorism, has risen higher than it’s been in years. 

I’m always encouraged to see this support, but to my mind it misses a crucial point. Congress and the President aren’t just there at times of crisis, and big-ticket items such as the military or homeland defense don’t tell the whole story of their impact on Americans’ lives. Rather, over the years Congresses and Presidents have found important ways to promote the quality of everyday life. Imagine an ordinary day, and I think you’ll be astounded at how much you can take for granted that your parents and grandparents could not. 

Let’s start the moment you wake up in the morning. The radio/alarm clock that just went off? If you live in a rural area — or in a suburb that 20 years ago was farmland — you might give a thought to the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, which brought electricity to rural areas and promoted the development you’ve been able to enjoy. If you live in a city, congressionally mandated subsidies and regulations have played no small part in bringing that power to your electric outlets at a price you can afford. 

Now that you’re up and brushing your teeth, it wouldn’t hurt to remember the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, which put the government in the business of setting standards for drinking-water quality and making sure they’re met. We take the safety of the water that comes out of our taps for granted, but before that law’s passage, potential cancer-causing chemicals were showing up in cities’ water, lead from supply pipes was becoming a problem, and viral and bacteriological contamination of water in smaller communities had been growing. While you're standing in front of the mirror, it's also worth remembering that a great deal of what we've learned in recent decades about health — about how to cure disease and how to remain healthy — has come from research funded by Congress. Moreover, if you wear cosmetics, take vitamins or use medications, they’ve had to go through a gauntlet of safety tests because at some point in the past, horror stories about their lack of safety led Congress to react. So, too, when you sit down at the breakfast table, you’re benefiting from meat and egg inspections carried out by the Department of Agriculture and agricultural programs run by the federal extension service in every county. 

I imagine you’re getting the point by now, but hang on! You’re not even out of the house yet. Now let’s say that, like most commuters in the country, you get in your car to go to work. Pretty much every safety feature of the car you drive, from the seat belts to the air bags to the quality of the tires, has been strengthened either by congressional mandate or by the activities of the National Transportation Safety Board. Your car’s fuel efficiency has increased because of congressionally-passed pressure on auto manufacturers, as has the quality of the air you breathe. Many of the roads you drive on, of course, were funded by Congress; and if you’re riding mass transit, federal subsidies played a big role in allowing the system to exist in the first place. 

Once you get to work, it’s hard to turn around without encountering some way in which the federal government has improved your lot in life. From workplace safety to laws protecting your pension to federally created retirement plans to small-business assistance to federal support for the industry you work in or the industries your job depends on, your working life has been shaped by congressional action. This is just as true of your education before you began working: your high school likely enjoyed federal support for everything from its library to its lunch program; the land grant college system was established by Congress, while other colleges and universities depend heavily on federal research grants; and your college tuition may well have been supported by a Pell grant or some other federal subsidy. 

Finally, let’s take a moment to think about all the things you do outside of work or home. If you enjoy parks, or like to boat on unpolluted rivers, or use community centers, or go online in the evening, or write checks, or have some portion of your investments in stocks, or buy your children toys, or depend on food labeling to help you decide how to feed your family, you owe a moment’s thanks to Congress for the funding or the regulations or the organizations that make it possible. 

To be sure, there will always be room for argument about how the federal government goes about these various responsibilities. It goes without saying that the government doesn’t always get it right or do it in the most efficient manner. People can legitimately disagree about whether this federal agency has gone too far in regulating the workplace or that one has not gone far enough in protecting the environment. But the impulse that lies behind federal action — the desire to produce a higher quality of life for all Americans — is much harder to argue with. There are issues of reliability, safety and comfort you don’t even notice today, because at some point in the past, someone in Congress did take note, and did something about them. 

(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.)