This election matters. We’ve heard that mantra endlessly from both presidential campaigns. But in fact every election matters – it matters whom we choose to represent us at every level of government. It’s not just what positions candidates take on the issues that count but what kinds of people they are and whether they are ready to engage in the nitty-gritty work of government. The deaths on the same day recently of two former members of the House of Representatives reminded us of what a difference an individual can make.
Paul Rogers, Democrat of Florida, became known in his 24 years in Congress as “Mr. Health.” In his career, he was able to effect wholesale change, touching all Americans, in the field of health policy. Matthew Rinaldo, Republican of New Jersey, though instrumental in the passage of legislation, was more of a hands-on guy in his district, where he concentrated on retail change. Both were non-ideological workhorses who crossed party lines to improve the lives of the people they served.
Rogers was the driving force behind the National Cancer Act, the 1971 law that implemented the “War on Cancer.” Over the years since its passage, the dollars going into cancer research and treatment have succeeded in lowering the incidence of the disease and the number of deaths of those diagnosed. There is probably not a family in America that hasn’t been affected by the progress wrought by that act of Congress. (Ironically, the nonsmoker Rogers died of lung cancer.)
The year before he successfully pushed through the Cancer Act, Rogers led the fight on the House floor for passage of the Clean Air Act, the landmark legislation that scrubbed the country’s polluted skies. When Rogers was making the case for the bill, he drew the link between environmental factors and cancer in persuading his colleagues to support stiff regulation. The Safe Drinking Water Act also succeeded with his strong sponsorship.
As chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment during his final four congressional terms, Rogers helped pass numerous pieces of legislation promoting health and protecting the environment. Health equity became an issue of particular concern to him. After his death, Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the New York Times that Rogers believed “that all lives are equally valuable and everyone has a right to experience access to the best possible health.”
When Rogers left Congress in 1980, the country was cleaner and healthier because he had been there. But the Floridian was no doctrinaire liberal – far from it. He scored high marks on the report cards of various conservative organizations, representing the majority views of his West Palm Beach district. He was one of a vanishing breed – a conservative Southern Democrat...