The Role of Congress in American Society

 

Cynics and doubters will find plenty of evidence to support their view that the United States Congress is not everything it should be. But amidst all the conflict and confrontation in Congress are episodes of cooperation and consensus. These may not be as well publicized as the disagreements, but they have led to many extraordinary legislative achievements over the years. Anyone who doubts that Congress remains a relevant and significant institution need look no further than the following list.

When it takes up issues like the education of our children, or the quality of the water we drink, or our ability to respond to emergencies and natural disasters, Congress is doing its best to reflect and to improve the quality of our lives as individuals and to strengthen our nation as a whole.

How many of the following acts of Congress affect your daily life?

Aerospace

Research and development of air and space technologies funded by Congress, primarily through NASA, have resulted in technological innovations in:

  • communications

  • navigation

  • geological studies

  • weather forecasting

  • consumer items, like cordless power tools, bar code scanners, and joysticks

  • national defense systems

Agriculture

Americans spend 10% of their personal income on food, far less than the rest of the world must spend. By funding agricultural research programs, Congress has enabled the nation's farmers to increase farm output nearly two-and-a-half times what it was in 1950.

Stable U.S. food commodity prices in a world-wide market are the result of Congress:

  • granting subsidies to farmers

  • expanding foreign aid programs as a market for American agricultural products

  • increasing export opportunities

  • providing controls on surplus production.

Art and Culture

To encourage artistic and cultural expression, Congress has passed copyright laws to give those with original ideas rights and protection for their intellectual property. Copyright laws have been expanded over the years from protecting the written word to now also protecting:

  • movies

  • sound recordings

  • television shows

  • computer software

  • semiconductor chips

Automobile Safety

Congress has passed laws to promote auto safety. It required:

  • car manufacturers to meet minimum safety standards in their designs, including seat belts and air bags, and it

  • created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to promote highway safety.

Air Safety

Congress created the Federal Aviation Agency [FAA] which manages and regulates all U.S. commercial aviation to assure air safety.

Banking

Congress established the national insurance policies which guarantee the safety of deposits made in banks and savings and loan institutions.

Civil Rights

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial discrimination:

  • in employment

  • in all public places

  • in any programs receiving federal funds.

Clean Air

Congress enacted laws providing national pollution control standards, including:

  • mandatory requirements on automakers to reduce car emissions

  • restrictions on power plant pollution

  • regulation of toxic pollutants

Consumer Safety

Congress has established various programs to regulate and monitor the safety of items used by consumers. For example, it established:

  • a program of government inspections of the purity of food, such as meat and dairy products

  • regulations to monitor toiletries, cosmetics, and medicines to prevent toxic ingredients from harming consumers

  • regulations to monitor advertising for fraudulent claims

  • the Consumer Product Safety Commission to monitor the safety of toys and other consumer products

  • regulations on local and state governments to assure the safety of municipal drinking water.

Crime

Congress passed the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, giving law enforcement grants to states and local governments to increase the number of officers and improve crime prevention.

Defense

All the branches of the U.S. military, which provide for the nation's security and protection from foreign invasion, were created and are funded by the Congress. It established:

  • our national security and intelligence agencies

  • defense research programs to keep pace with rapid technological changes in weaponry

  • defense research programs which led to the invention of Global Positioning Systems. GPS is now available to consumers as well as the Department of Defense

Disaster Relief

The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] can trace its beginnings to the Congressional Act of 1803. Congress now provides over $2 billion a year for emergency disaster funds.

  • It partners with FEMA to create Project Impact communities in every state to mitigate disasters through prevention programs

  • It provides yearly emergency supplemental funding for disaster relief

  • It provides funds for long-term recovery

  • It provides buy-out assistance for victims

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Congress created the Office of National Drug Abuse Policy [the Drug Czar] to educate the public about the hazards of alcohol and drug abuse and develop prevention programs.

Educational Opportunities

Congress created :

  • Pell Grants to fund an expanded higher education scholarship program

  • A system of federal loans and scholarships for undergrads, which amounts to about 75% of all financial aid available to students

  • Fulbright Scholarships for college and faculty exchanges abroad

  • Federal grants for improved math, science, and foreign language programs

  • the Head Start program to enable disadvantaged children to better prepare for school

  • Funds for libraries and special ed programs in low-income elementary school districts.

  • Funds to help schools meet equal access requirements so that students with disabilities can attend school

  • the school-to-work program to develop apprenticeships and occupationally relevant content in high school curriculums.

Energy Conservation

With passage of the Energy Security Act, Congress allocated billions toward the development of synthetic, alternative, and renewable fuel in preparation for the day when the earth's supply of natural fuel diminishes. It also:

  • mandated conservation standards for major appliances

  • required utility companies to give consumers information about conservation

  • provided schools and hospitals with grants to install energy saving equipment.

Family Leave

Congress granted unpaid leave to workers for up to 12 weeks per year for the birth or adoption of a child or due to the illness of a close family member.

Family Support

Congress required the states to:

  • provide education, training, and work programs for welfare mothers

  • provide extended child care and medical benefits to parents who left welfare to work

  • created a national alert program for missing children

  • create programs for family preservation efforts, such as emergency counseling.

Food Safety

Congress established a program of government inspections of the purity of food, meat, and medicines.

Handicapped Access

Congress expanded employment opportunities for the handicapped by passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring that access to the workplace and public spaces be made available to those with physical disabilities.

Hazardous Waste

Congress established federal controls on hazardous waste management and set standards for land disposal of waste.

 

Health and Medicine

Congress has provided funds for:

  • research into the cause and prevention of diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and heart disease through passage of the Public Health Service Act

  • a system to check the safety and potency of vaccines, serums, and medicinal drugs.

  • research at the National Institutes of Health to help develop new and more effective medicines

  • programs to develop nutritional science and require nutritional labeling and education about diet and health

  • training and educational programs for medical professionals

  • subsidies for hospital and medical school construction.

Housing

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, outlawing racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing units. In 1988, it extended the discrimination ban to families with children and to the handicapped. Congress has also authorized funds for:

  • homeless shelters

  • trusts to help low-income home buyers

  • subsidies for low-income renters

Internet

The two federal agencies instrumental in creating the computer protocols which became today's Internet are funded by the U.S. Congress.

  • The Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] created Arpanet, an experimental prototype computer network for defense work in 1969.

  • The National Science Foundation built on that work in 1986 to create NSFnet, linking computer centers for their community of researchers, and creating the same protocols used by the Internet today.

Labor Safety and Wages

Congress :

  • created the concept of a federal minimum wage and votes periodic increases in the wage rate

  • passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act to set safety and health standards in the workplace

  • established an agency [OSHA] to inspect work sites and enforce health and safety rules.

  • banned job discrimination based on age, race, gender, or disability

  • established a federal unemployment compensation program to pay workers who have lost their jobs for a temporary period as they transition to another job.

Medicare

Congress provided federal health insurance for the aged and poor with passage of the Medicare Act in 1965.

Poverty

Congress established a public assistance program for families with dependent children, and it

  • provided for food stamps and nutritional assistance to the eligible poor

  • encouraged poverty prevention and assistance programs by creating community action agencies which provide services and training for the poor

  • encouraged community volunteers in programs such as VISTA and Upward Bound

  • instituted tax credits for low-income families

  • created Job Corps training for public service employment

  • created transition programs for people moving from welfare to work

Privacy

Congress has:

  • banned schools from disclosing records to third parties without permission

  • granted students rights to access their own records and the right to correct information in them

  • enacted laws prohibiting video stores from disclosing their customers' names and selections to outside parties

  • banned lie detector tests as a prerequisite for employment, except in selected cases.

  • required banks to inform their customers of their right to request privacy for their records

  • limited federal government access to banking records.

Retirement

Congress:

  • lowered the age for young workers to qualify to start earning pension credits

  • expanded pension coverage for those who leave but subsequently return to a job.

  • set up a program to protect retired workers' pensions and insure they will continue to receive their pension checks if their former companies go under.

Social Security

Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935, which established:

  • income insurance for the elderly and disabled

  • survivors' benefits

  • a system of unemployment compensation.

School Lunch

Congress passed the National School Lunch Act to:

  • support school lunches in public and private schools

  • improve the diet of school children

  • provide use for surplus farm commodities.

Transportation

Congress created the nation's interstate highway system in 1956 and:

  • created a fund from user and gasoline taxes to support highway construction and maintenance for years to come, leading to the over 45,000 miles of convenient interstate Americans enjoy today

  • provided federal government loans and grants for construction and maintenance of mass transit systems across the country by passing the Urban Mass Transportation Act.

Water Safety

Congress has mandated national drinking water standards and created groundwater protection programs.

Women's Rights

Congress banned:

  • discrimination in school sports programs based on sex, passing Title IX of the Education Amendments Act in 1972

  • sex discrimination in the granting of credit cards and consumer loans

  • sex discrimination in military academies by opening up appointments to women

  • different wage scales for women and men, by implementing equal pay for equal work laws.

Voting Rights

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It banned:

  • interference with an individual's right to register or vote, making it a federal crime

  • the use of literacy tests as a barrier to voting, and

  • Congress established the right to vote absentee, requiring states to accept mail ballots from military personnel and other U.S. citizens living abroad