Ted Kennedy is gone. Now is the time for Congress to enact meaningful health care reform, including a public option, as a tribute to the “Lion of the Senate.” Last year, Senator Kennedy referred to health care reform as “the cause of my life.” This was no exaggeration. Kennedy ran on the issue of affordable health care in 1962, in his first run for the Senate. Kennedy was instrumental in the passage of Medicare and Medicaid programs, both controversial programs that faced considerable Republican opposition at the time which have now become highly popular. In 1980, in his famous “the dream will never die” speech at the Democratic National Convention, Kennedy announced that he would “continue to stand for national health insurance” because “the state of a family’s health should never depend on a family’s wealth.” There would be no better tribute to a man who gave over 45 years of his life to championing the cause of the poor, the middle class and the disenfranchised, than for Congress to enact health care reform in Ted Kennedy’s name.
There is precedent for enacting major human rights legislation to honor a fallen senatorial comrade. In 1875, Kennedy’s Bay State predecessor, the great anti-slavery advocate Senator Charles Sumner, lay on his death bed as he pleaded with his Senate colleagues to “enact my civil rights bill.” Sumner’s colleagues in Congress responded by enacting the 1875 Civil Rights Act as a tribute to his lifelong battle against slavery and on behalf of civil rights. The 1875 Act prohibited race discrimination in privately owned places of public accommodation. (Historical note: The Supreme Court struck the 1875 Act down, necessitating the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which also passed with Ted Kennedy’s support)).
Like Sumner, Ted Kennedy worried about his life’s cause while on his death bed. From home, he continued to advocate for health care reform with his staff and colleagues. The week before he died, Kennedy repeated his request to the Massachusetts legislature to authorize the governor to appoint his successor instead of waiting until a special election filled his spot. Ted Kennedy knew that every vote would count in the Senate battle for health care reform.
So, members of Congress, it is up to you to realize Senator Ted Kennedy’s lifelong dream. He deserves it, and so do we.