CONGRESS so seldom does something wonderful we should pause and salute it on those rare occasions. Last week the House passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which for the 43 million disabled citizens is the personal, daily equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The miracle -- and it was just about that -- began, on the Senate side anyway, on the morning of last July 27, when, in first negotiations, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts blew up at President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu.
The scene was the office of Republican leader Robert Dole, whose right arm was disabled in World War II and who is a fervent advocate of the bill. The cast was large: In addition to Sununu and Kennedy, there were Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is chairman of the disabilities subcommittee, not to mention many aides and secretaries.
Bush had promised to sign an ADA bill. Sununu, nonetheless, was probing for limitations. He . pressed subcommittee staff director Bobby Silverstein about the impact on small businesses of providing accommodations for wheelchairsSilverstein kept trying to take him back to the policy behind the bill, which in Bush's words, spoken two days before his inauguration, was "to provide the disabled with the same rights afforded others." Sununu, according to eyewitnesses, lost his temper and started shouting at Silverstein.
Suddenly, Kennedy slammed downhis hand, palm open, on the table. He began to rail at Sununu in a thunderous voice. His text went like this: "Listen here. I am going to tell you something. When you yell at staff, you are yelling at us. Remember that. If you want to yell at me, go ahead, but that is not the way we do things here. If this is the way you want to continue, we are walking out of here right now."
Sununu joined in the ensuing silence, and soon the negotiators fell to bargaining in earnest. The Republicans agreed to wider coverage, the Democrats to milder penalties. The bill was approved unanimously, with White House endorsement, by the Senate Labor Committee on Aug. 2. It went to the floor on Sept. 6, and passed the next day by a vote of 76 to 8.
"It was the proudest day of my life," says Harkin, who was floor manager. The matter is personal to him. He has a deaf brother who was sent to the Iowa School for the Deaf and Dumb where students were taught one of three trades: baker, printer or cobbler. The bill makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities and offers them mainstream education.
On the House side, the bill was in the hands of Steny Hoyer of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Caucus. He is a good-humored man and is credited with steering it through the four committees -- Labor, Transportation, Justice and Energy -- it had to pass. The breakthrough came when he persuaded the formidable chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, John Dingell of Michigan, that providing "reasonable accommodations" would not bankrupt Amtrak. The bill, as could be expected from a measure enjoying administration support and a hefty Senate vote, had considerable momentum. It also had the sympathetic attention of Thornburgh, whose wife attended many hearings, and of White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, who got advocates past Sununu to Bush.
The groups hurled themselves into all-out lobbying. "My Left Foot," the affecting movie about the Irish boy in whose immobile body a writer and painter lived, was shown twice on Capitol Hill. The disabled themselves, with their wheelchairs, their canes and their crutches, toiled around to congressional offices, displaying dignity and charm, trying to convince members that even people who can only drool are capable of astonishing expression, and making one point over and over: We don't want pity, we want work.
The bill went to the floor last Tuesday, which was one of those days when it seemed Congress can do nothing. The senators were dithering about putting the S &L bailout on the budget. House members were sliding around on aid to El Salvador. The Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus had prepared a harrowing document about civil rights abuses by El Salvador's military leaders. It detailed atrocities which 14 of 15 members of the high command either alllowed or ordered. It was an irrefutable argument for cutting off every dime of military aid. The best the House could do was to vote for cutting it in half. But even that was futile. The leadership did not want a confrontation over money to Nicaragua and Panama in the same bill and cut the amendment loose.
But the Americans with Disabilities Act passed the House by a vote of 403 to 20. It gives access to a better life to those 43 million Americans. For the disabled gathered in Statuary Hall to celebrate, it was hallelujah time.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.