3. Medicare and Medicaid acts (1965). Together, these programs have protected the health of countless elderly and poor Americans, putting it “right up there with Social Security in its impact on American life,” in Aberbach’s words. And looking into the future, the programs are so enormous that both the federal government and state governments are destined to face intractable budget challenges.
4. Federal-Aid Highway Act (1956). Its title is obscure, but its impact is not: The act created the Interstate Highway System, which touched virtually every aspect of American life in the past 50 years. Faster roads intensified economic growth, boosted domestic tourism and made possible just-in-time manufacturing processes. Interstates also produced suburbanization, which dramatically changed lifestyles (more space, but longer commutes), drove downtowns into decline and led to the development of previously empty land. Population shifted to the Sun Belt, changing the nation’s political balance. And the Interstates irreversibly solidified the primacy of the automobile, worsening air pollution and climate change and cementing the strategic importance of the Middle East.
5. Economic Recovery Tax Act (1981). ERTA, the keystone of President Ronald Reagan’s economic program, cut individual taxes by 25 percent, indexed tax rates to end “bracket creep” and made other technical changes that have had an enormous influence on the economy in the past quarter-century. In a larger sense, ERTA ushered in an era in which big government, and sometimes any government, ceased to be seen as an unalloyed good. The act “changed the direction of the federal government — the biggest shift since the New Deal — and laid the foundation for Republican success,” Uslaner said.
6. National Defense Education Act (1958). Passed in response to the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik, NDEA provided $575 million for education and low-interest loans for students. Its stated focus on boosting achievement in science and mathematics helped enhance the nation’s intellectual capital, laying the groundwork for decades of American innovation in science and technology and, in turn, providing a basis for economic growth, military superiority and world leadership. The act is relatively forgotten today; only two of our panelists cited it.
7. Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964). The Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorized military action in Vietnam, leading the United States into a conflict that left more than 50,000 Americans dead and bequeathed tremendous divisiveness at home. Beyond that, however, the resolution — which was based on an attack that may not have taken place at all — was a major landmark for presidential authority on waging war. Ever since, presidents have exercised largely unfettered power to commit American troops abroad, with little say by Congress, despite passage of the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
8. Amendments to Immigration and Nationality Act (1965). This legislation, sponsored by Sen. Phil Hart (D-Mich.) and Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.), is the sleeper of the list. It removed national-origins quotas for immigrants that had stood since 1921, thus clearing the way for a new wave of mass immigration that transformed America. To supporters, these immigrants have strengthened America’s economy; to detractors, they have been a burden, especially for native-born Americans who face new competition for jobs. Either way, the influx of immigrants from around the globe has irrevocably redefined American culture. “At the time, it wasn’t thought to be all that important, and it wasn’t very controversial,” Mayhew said. “But few acts of Congress have ever been as consequential.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.