In honor of Roll Call’s upcoming 50th anniversary, we present the first in a series of top 10 lists that assess Congress’ achievements, embarrassments and curiosities since 1955.
Over the past 50 years, Congress has passed approximately 28,000 bills. But only a small minority of them have had a profound impact on American life.
In an attempt to single out the 10 most important pieces of legislation during the past half-century, we looked for those that most significantly shaped the nation’s future course, whether for better or for worse. Domestic and foreign policy were both fair game, and we didn’t quibble about whether the measure was a bill, a resolution or a treaty ratification. (We did exclude confirmations of appointees, however.) Also, we valued diversity in subject matter so the list wouldn’t overflow with bills on the same general topic.
To gather ideas, we consulted a blue-ribbon panel of Congressional scholars: Joel Aberbach of the University of California at Los Angeles, Scott Adler of the University of Colorado, David Boaz of the Cato Institute, David Brady and Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution, Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, Allan Lichtman of American University, Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas, David Mayhew of Yale University, Bert Rockman of Ohio State University, Steven Smith of Washington University, Rick Striner of Washington College, James Thurber of American University and Eric Uslaner of the University of Maryland.
After sifting through these scholars’ nominations, we settled on a top 10. We also added a few near-misses.
As it happened, the scholars, though they worked independently of each other, reached a clear consensus on the top 5 pieces of legislation. Beyond that, they diverged wildly — so for the rest of the measures on our list, we applied our own judgment.
Though it wasn’t our intention, the top 10 and the runners-up together contain at least one measure signed by every president since 1955 except for Gerald Ford. There’s also a virtually equal divide between measures signed by Republican and Democratic presidents. Here’s the list:
1. Civil Rights Act (1964). Virtually every scholar, liberal and conservative, ranked this act first on their list. Its impact is unquestionable: Coming after a decade of civil rights struggle in the South and on the heels of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the hotly contested act effectively ended racial discrimination in public accommodations and employment. Less noticed initially, but arguably just as significant, is the act’s role in ending discrimination based on sex. “America could scarcely lay claim to be a moral exemplar for the world prior to this act,” Lichtman said.
2. Voting Rights Act (1965). A few of our scholars ranked this act equal to, or even higher than, the Civil Rights Act. They cited not only its intended impact on ensuring the vote for blacks, but also its unintended but profound role in realigning American politics. After the VRA, white voters, first in the South and then elsewhere, flocked to the Republican Party. This in turn made possible America’s turn to the right on economic, social and foreign policy since the 1980s.