Lawmakers across the political spectrum have celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act over the past week — none more than Sen. Orrin G. Hatch.
The Utah Republican is one of the few who can offer a first-hand account of the tumultuous path the law took through Congress. Hatch commemorated the act at a July 27 news conference with former Sens. Tom Harkin and Bob Dole, former Rep. Steve Bartlett, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Equal Opportunities Commission Commissioner Chai Feldblum, who all worked to get the ADA signed in 1990.
“This was one of the bills, and the aftermath as well, that I think is one of the most important things that I’ve ever done in the Senate,” Hatch told the crowd last week of his efforts passing the original bill and the 2008 amendments.
Hatch recalled the prickly passage of ADA in a brief interview with CQ Roll Call last week. Opposing partisan viewpoints made the process difficult, but he saw it as something that was “long overdue” and said, “The American public deserved to have done.”
“It was contentious at the time, you can imagine, because [former Sen. Edward M. Kennedy] and many of the Democrats never looked at the cost or how you pay for these things. Of course, naturally, I looked at the costs. I wanted to help, but I also wanted it to be fiscally sound,” the Finance Committee chairman said.
“Some of the Democrats wanted to go way beyond anything we could do. And some of the conservatives didn’t want to spend any money for anything,” he continued. He called it a miracle they were able to get together and work out a deal.
The famous deal occurred when Hatch, Kennedy, Harkin, former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and a few others met with Dole in his office to finalize the legislation. The meeting became tense, and Hatch was forced to play peacemaker.
“The two antagonists were John Sununu Sr. and Ted Kennedy. At one point, Ted Kennedy shot out of his seat and I had to force him back into his seat,” Hatch said.
In "Leading the Charge," a biography about Hatch, author Lee Roderick notes the heated dispute occurred when Sununu made a derogatory comment about Kennedy’s son, who lost a leg to cancer.
The dispute was resolved, of course, and the bill passed with help from many.
“When we finally passed it, [Harkin] and I walked off the floor and went out to the reception room, which was absolutely jam packed with people with disabilities. ... And I remember Tom and I stepped in front of them, and we both broke down and cried,” Hatch said at the July 27 news conference.
According to his biography, Hatch became especially involved in ADA when he met with Justin Dart, a GOP fundraiser who used a wheelchair and was a prominent activist on the issue. But Hatch told CQ Roll Call his involvement was also due to his “deep feelings about persons with disabilities.”
The senator said he feels similarly about Medicare and Medicaid.
“I’ve always had the motto in my life that I want to help people who can’t help themselves but would if they could,” he said. “I have trouble helping people who could help themselves, but won’t. These are people who want to work, who want to contribute, who have the capacity to contribute, if we recognize it.”