If you’ve ever struggled to get the safety cap off of a prescription medicine bottle, you have Lyndon Baines Johnson to thank for it. Sometime in 1966 the young son of Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s top domestic aide, swallowed a bottle of aspirin and was rushed to Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. Mr. Califano’s memoir, The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (1991), tells the story. “The President, frantically trying to reach me, finally ran me down,” Mr. Califano writes. “‘What are you doing at the hospital?’ he asked. After offering to help, Johnson said he’d always worried about children getting into medicine bottles and hurting themselves. ‘There ought to be a law that makes druggists use safe containers,’ he said.”
Soon thereafter L.B.J. filed legislation and—voila!— within a few years people across the country were struggling to press and turn simultaneously. That common-sense reform, however, saved many young lives. The safety cap is also a telling example of Johnson’s all-embracing approach to policymaking: nothing was too small or too obscure for presidential action.
Mr. Califano put it well when he described his first reaction to the legislative laundry list that Johnson had given him: “There will never be enough for this man; he adopts programs the way a child eats rich chocolate-chip cookies.” (Full disclosure: Mr. Califano is a former member of America’s board of directors and is a longtime supporter of this magazine. I read The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, however, when I was a senior in college.)
Revisiting Mr. Califano’s memoir and reading Rob Weinert-Kendt’s review of a new play about Lyndon Johnson that just opened here in New York, got me thinking about Johnson and the years since his premature exit from the national stage. It’s undoubtedly true, as Weinert-Kendt puts it, that for good and ill, “Johnson’s presidency was one of the great pivot points in American history.” It’s not Johnson’s unrelenting and unprecedented legislating, however, that I’ve been thinking about. Nor is it his courageous stance on civil rights, nor even his third-act downfall in the spring of 1968.
No, it’s the simple fact that he got something—anything—done that most impresses me right now. The Califano episode is a case in point: L.B.J. saw a problem that needed a solution; it was a short distance then from “there ought to be a law” to there actually being a law. Sure, people disagreed in those days about what laws to pass, but there was general agreement that the job of a legislator is to legislate.
Not so today. Unless something changes dramatically in the second half of the present 113th Congress, it will be the least productive in modern memory. As The Los Angeles Times recently put it: “The Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate agreed on so few issues [in 2013], Congress is on pace to pass the fewest bills in a two-year term since World War II. Pundits have compared the current occupants of Capitol Hill unfavorably to the infamous ‘Do-Nothing Congress’ of 1947-48, which was a dynamo in comparison. Lawmakers passed 1,729 bills in that two-year term, compared to 58 in the first year of [the present Congress].”
I suppose that libertarians and other antigovernment folks are actually pleased that so little is happening in Washington; but I have a hard time believing that the political paralysis is in anybody’s real interest. I don’t think we need a second Great Society, but it’s highly unlikely that a country of more than 300 million people, with a gross domestic product of $15.68 trillion, requires fewer than a hundred new laws each year in order to govern itself. It’s time that Washington’s “No, we can’t” changed, if not to “Yes, we can,” then at least to “Maybe we should.”