Watching the dedication ceremonies of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on C-SPAN recently got me to thinking about the opportunity and obligation the Institute has to address the near complete collapse of effective governance in Washington. Neither party has clean hands. And worse, neither will fix this mess.
As the former staff director of Sen. Kennedy’s Health Subcommittee in the 1970s, I know that he would expect the Institute that bears his name to tackle this problem because doing so is a direct extension of the Institute’s stated mission: “encouraging participatory democracy, invigorating civil discourse, and inspiring the next generation of citizens and leaders to engage in the civic life of their communities.”
Few people know the story I’m about to tell you. But it epitomizes the extraordinary talent, tenacity and creativity he brought to the legislative process. It also illuminates the path forward for the Institute.
Savvy trade on cancer bill
When Sen. Kennedy became Chairman of the Health Subcommittee in 1971 his first task was to pass the War on Cancer bill, S.34, that included the recommendations of a special panel of 26 scientific experts and distinguished laymen, including Dr. Sidney Farber, then the scientific director of the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation in Boston.
The ranking minority member of our subcommittee was conservative Republican Peter Dominick of Colorado. Kennedy and Dominick didn’t know one another well, and they didn’t trust each other.
But the real problem had nothing to do with the need to expand cancer research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in order to take better advantage of the opportunities to combat the more than 100 diseases that are cancer. The problem was presidential politics.
President Nixon was terrified that Kennedy was going to use the War on Cancer as his stalking horse to challenge him in 1972. To thwart that irrational fear Nixon sent an alternative cancer bill to Congress that Dominick introduced, S.1828. It was substantively flimsy, lacking the scientific content of Kennedy’s bill. Thus, the stage was set for a bitter battle between Nixon and Kennedy over who would get the credit for the cancer initiative. It was a precursor of the deadlock in Washington today.
However, in the closed subcommittee mark-up session on both bills that summer, Sen. Kennedy did something astonishing. He turned to Dominick and said, “Peter, why don’t you report S.1828.” By offering to let Dominick report the bill from the committee and manage it on the Senate floor, he was proposing to turn the leadership of the cancer initiative over to Dominick and the Nixon administration. Something like this never happens!
Then Kennedy said he would offer an amendment to strike all of the language in S.1828 and substitute the language from his bill. Dominick, caught completely by surprise, said, “That’s fine, Ted.” Dominick’s staffer bolted from his chair and came over to me and whispered, “Lee, I don’t know how to write a committee report.” And I said, “We’ll do it together,” and that’s exactly what we did.
Thus, Nixon’s bill number with Kennedy’s language was on its way to passage. In a stroke of brilliance, Ted Kennedy had turned what would have become an unnecessary, paralyzing political war into what became bipartisan public policy. The ripple effect of what Kennedy did was dramatic. The enactment of the cancer bill in December of 1971 not only triggered a massive expansion of basic and clinical cancer research, it also greatly expanded research at NIH for all other diseases.
From that point forward Dominick and Kennedy knew they could trust each other. They worked cooperatively together on many more health bills. For Kennedy the die was cast. Not only had he learned the irreplaceable value of compromise and surprise, he used those skills over and over again as the decades rolled by to become the Senate’s Legislative Lion.
Now Ted Kennedy is gone, and so is the spirit of trust and accommodation that is essential to a functioning democracy. In its place, fear and hatred control Congress and its relations with the White House. If allowed to continue, it poses an existential threat to our freedom and to democracy itself.
It’s obvious the federal government won’t put this right. It needs help, and the Kennedy Institute has the opportunity and the obligation to provide some of that help – not because I say so, but because Ted Kennedy would expect nothing less. Such an endeavor for the Institute will not be easy or safe. The path forward is perilous, but it must begin – now.
When it’s begun I can hear Ted saying what we heard him say so often over the years: “Good, Good.”
Goldman worked on Capitol Hill and at the National Institutes of Health. He has retired to Flat Rock and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.