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The Dirty Secret

It isn’t hard to conclude that Senate Republicans made colossal asses of themselves Tuesday, when they successfully (?) scuttled a UN treaty that essentially enshrines US law abroad, rather than the other way around they are always fearing.  But considering their already shaky popularity with so much of America, the question is why it was so important for them to do so anyway.

Given that the electorate had taken one good look at Rick Santorum, heard the stillborn fetus story, and quite reasonably fled in terror just months ago, did they think it would be good for their “brand” to haul him out once again with yet another tainted fruit of his quivering loins, to yammer on shrilly about death panels for babies?  For a party that was just rebuked in part for its denial of science and observable reality, reminding the American people that something called “home-schoolers” are now helping to determine which International Treaties get signed seems a bit counterproductive, to put it delicately.

And what about, just as the afterthought it clearly was for them, the actual substance of the treaty?  That is, not defying Bob Dole and millions of other disabled Americans the same opportunities abroad that they have come to enjoy at home?  This, from the party of the Hoveround?  Well, therein lies the answer.  As stupid as they pretend to be, Republicans know that the Americans With Disabilities Act was one of the most successful “big gummint” regulations that had been passed since the Nixon era, and as such it makes them even more irrational than usual in their desperation for a distraction of some sort.

I speak from some experience, as I entered the construction business just as ADA was just being implemented (along with more stringent earthquake and water saving regulations, which also turned out well…), and as you’d expect, the notoriously conservative building industry was in a teabaggy funk about it.  It was pretty silly, really, because it only applied to new construction and commercial remodels above a certain percentage of value, and although standards were set for residential construction, they were never mandatory for single family homes.

The time was ripe for the changes; postwar construction had left behind the worst of both worlds: tiny, bare-bones hallways and bathrooms, narrow doorways and stairs, and as the 70’s flowered (often literally), houses with gratuitous and inconvenient level changes were depressingly common.  Even extravagant commercial projects suffered the same flaws: office towers aloof atop raised plazas approached by stairs, simultaneously killing the street as well as the access.  Handy, when the first of the baby boomers are about to enter geezerhood.

Then, a funny thing happened as we spent the next 20-odd years careening down the handicap ramp to (not yet) European Socialism.  ADA turned out to be the best thing since way before sliced bread; it wasn’t particularly difficult to build new buildings with level entries, and deliverymen, moms with strollers, and aging athletes saw the world in a whole new light.   Shopfronts level with the sidewalk made walking more pleasant, and feel safer at night.   Other, older buildings followed suit, seeing the marketing value of easy access and a livelier streetfront for retail.  For better or worse, even suitcases sprouted wheels, and never went back.  The world had gone flat, and not just in the way Tom Friedman was always imagining.

The effect was equally dramatic on residential construction, over time.  Who knew how much easier it would be to move furniture if your hall were 6″ wider, and how much more pleasant a bathroom was when you couldn’t brush your teeth while sitting on the toilet?   ADA compliance, which started as a niche amenity for retirement communities, quickly trickled down to the rest of the housing industry, because it was simply more appealing than the cramped, disjointed spaces that preceded it.  How can anyone say that the law that, as one of its unintended consequences no less, finally killed the split-level was anything but a roaring success?

As Harry Reid once said about Republicans, “Whatever they say, believe the opposite,” is once again true about ADA.  Although they do lose sleep over such absurd fantasies as Black Helicopters, Baby Killers, and Jackbooted Government Thugs armed to the teeth with measuring tapes, it’s something only proud kooks like Rand Paul just offer up when it isn’t an emergency.  This meltdown was triggered by something much deeper: the fear of government actually working, and in a way that almost everybody appreciates.

No amount of unseemly poo-flinging is too embarrassing to distract people from that.

Photo by theqspeaks under Creative Commons license.

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