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When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law almost 23 years ago, the idea of inclusion for people with disabilities was legally born. Ramps were built, infrastructure was redesigned and, for the first time, the law backed people with disabilities who demanded their right not to be blocked from physical access to facilities.
But more than two decades the ADA became law, the ideal of inclusion has yet to be fully realized. Because enforcement of the statute is largely complaint-based, many public businesses are still inaccessible for people in wheelchairs. Bureaucratic processes easily muffle access demands and people with disabilities are at times not able to get in the front door.
Wondering why Congress hasn’t acted to help finish the job? At least part of the answer lies in the lobbying might of powerful interests worried about costs.
Many lobbying clients that favor deregulation — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Hotel and Lodging Association — simply have more money at their disposal than clients who favor more extensive ADA regulations. Since 2001, 119 organizations have filed 37 lobbying reports concerning 11 bills and a resolution that mentioned the ADA in their summaries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While lobbying disclosure reports don’t require organizations to reveal their positions on bills they lobby, looking at the interests a group represents allows for an educated guess.
For example, it’s safe to say that among the top three organizations lobbying on a bill introduced in the last Congress that aimed to exempt swimming pools from ADA regulation, the United Spinal Association was the only one lobbying against it. The other top groups – the Chamber and the trade group representing the hotel industry — lobby against regulation that could cost their members money. The bill failed.
Last year, the Chamber spent $136.3 million lobbying and the American Hotel and Lodging Association spent $1.2 million, while the United Spinal Association spent just $330,000, according to CRP data. (Lobbying reports don’t require a breakdown of how much was spent lobbying a specific bill; the numbers reflect activity on all issues.) Since 2001, the hotel industry group has filed 21 lobbying reports related to the dozen ADA proposals put in the legislative hopper. The Chamber has filed 11 and the National Association of Realtors has filed nine. Last year, the Realtors spent $41.5 million lobbying.
The vast majority of the reports filed in the past decade dealt with the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, which would have beefed up the law by redefining disability and explicitly dealing with employment discrimination. A total of 74 organizations lobbied the bill.Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the leading political force behind the ADA, introduced the Restoration Act, which had bipartisan cosponsorship.
Among the organizations that lobbied most on it were the Epilepsy Foundation of America, the Realtors and the National Association of Manufacturers. Neither this version nor another introduced in 2006 reached a vote. In 2008, when the majority of the lobbying happened, the manufacturers spent $7.5 million making their voice heard in Washington, while the epilepsy group spent only $340,000.
Three versions of a bill to lengthen the amount of time that must pass between filing a complaint about lack of accommodation and filing a lawsuit if the complaint isn’t resolved — essentially extending how long the owners of a facility have to make it accessible — have been introduced in the House. Republicans made up the lion’s share of the cosponsors of each bill, though none ever reached a vote. When it was introduced in 2001, 61 of the 69 co-sponsors were Republican; by 2003, that hadn’t changed much — 62 of the 63 cosponsors were Republican when it was re-introduced. In 2011, all 17 of the cosponsors for a similar bill were Republican.
In some cases, there are other ways to resolve ADA issues. This year, the Department of Justice addressed the ambiguity about swimming pools under the statute, saying it would enforce accessibility regulation.
Reid Davenport is a former reporting intern at the Center for Responsive Politics and is finishing his documentary film, Wheelchair Diaries: One Step Up.
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