Editorial: Legislation that benefits Americans

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

It's easy to think of Congress as little more than a debating society, where partisan games, ideological rigidity and special interests conspire to keep anything from getting accomplished. Examples abound of Congress's inability to address problems that put a squeeze on America's middle class families. That's why it's worth recognizing progress on two bills that will bring concrete relief American families.

The first is the College Affordability and Access Act of 2007, which is now headed to the White House, where President Bush is expected to sign into law the largest increase in federal spending on student aid since the G.I. Bill sent a generation of veterans off to college.

If you missed the debate on this legislation, it is because, like much of Congress's work, the real fight was between lawmakers who wanted to do something about the pressures steady double-digit increases in tuition were putting on students and their families and the lending institutions that have made hefty profits off of student loans.

The bill will increase the maximum Pell Grant, which is awarded to the neediest students, from $4,300 to $5,400. It will cut interest rates on new student loans by half and provide grants and loan forgiveness for students who go into teaching or other public service jobs. The cost will be covered by taking $20 billion in subsidies away from banks and other lenders.

The second is the Mental Health Parity bill, which was approved by the Senate Tuesday. The product of 10 years of discussion and two years of intense negotiation between advocates, insurers and the business community, the bill would require mental health treatment be covered at the same level as medical and surgical benefits.

The bill must now be reconciled with a House version, but there is hope that we are on the brink of finally giving the victims of brain disorders the same respect and treatment accorded to those whose illnesses attack other organs.

It is no coincidence that both these bills bear the stamp of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Over four decades in the Senate, he has earned the reputation as the nation's most effective legislator. He assembles coalitions with care, immerses himself in the details and makes alliances across the aisle. On the mental health parity bill, for instance, he has teamed up for years with Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, who shares the credit for Tuesday's unanimous Senate approval.

Kennedy was as effective as any Democrat in getting legislation passed when the Republicans controlled the Senate. Now that the Democrats are in charge, he is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and able to bring legislation to the floor touching on a wide swath of issues affecting American families.

Kennedy can be fiery and partisan when needed. He voices principled outrage when faced with the outrageous. Then he rolls up his sleeves and makes legislation happen. These bills won't make college as affordable as it should be or mental health treatment as accessible as we'd like. But both represent real progress, and reflect well on Kennedy and on Congress.

MetroWest Daily News