Historians Differ on Impact of Schiavo Law
38 minutes ago
By JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Elian Gonzales' plight and other stories
of woe have occasionally inflamed the passions of
lawmakers, but they haven't inspired Congress to pass
with such fanfare a law addressing a lone, specific
Some historians say the case of Terri Schiavo is so
unusual that it will be difficult for Congress to pass
another such law, no matter how appealing the cause.
"It's hard enough for Congress to deal with big issues
like taxes or war, but to start getting into
individual cases like this will be hard for the
institution to sustain," said Julian Zelizer, a Boston
University professor who specializes in congressional
history and trends.
Others, however, say Congress has opened a door it
will never be able to close.
"Why won't others claim that, 'We have similar cases
or identical cases and why did you act in that case
and not in my case?'" said Allan Lichtman, who chairs
the history department at American University in
Washington. "I think the door has been opened and it
certainly wouldn't surprise me to see other cases
arise before Congress."
Congress early Monday morning rushed legislation to
President Bush (news - web sites) to give Schiavo's
parents a chance in federal court to overturn a
Florida judge's decision to remove her feeding tube.
Her husband Michael has been arguing for years that
the brain-damaged woman would not want to be kept
alive artificially, while her parents and relatives
say she responds to them and shouldn't be starved to
Lawmakers have tried before to step into hot-button
issues. Senate Republicans in 2000 filed bills to
provide American citizenship to 6-year-old Elian
Gonzales so he wouldn't be sent back to Cuba after his
mother died trying to get to the United States.
Legislation stalled on the Senate floor.
Congress, however, routinely passes small individual
relief bills to help people on non-controversial
issues like permanent residency, tax overpayments and
"A lot of these personal relief bills are fairly
technical matters, to take care of a loophole in the
law that otherwise would have created a problem, but
not at this level of grandeur or attention," said
Senate Historian Richard Baker.
Zelizer said the Schiavo bill is different.
"This isn't about a legislator protecting someone in
their district or someone in their state, which is
usually what that is about," he said. "This is about
Congress collectively intervening (on behalf of)
someone who most of the legislators have no tie with,
which is why it's kind of remarkable."
Lawmakers wrote specifically in the Schiavo bill that
it is not to be used as a precedent for those with
similarly compelling stories. Lichtman said that
assurance is meaningless now that the precedent has
"Any intensely private and painful decisions that
families render now suddenly could be made public," he said.