The death of Frank R. Lautenberg marks much more than the end of the Greatest Generation’s time in the Senate. In addition to being the final World War II veteran in the place, and the longest-serving senator ever from New Jersey, Lautenberg was an anchor for the dwindling core of congressional Democrats who never wavered from vigorously promoting a robust role in regulating everyday life.
As a consequence, the legislative legacy he leaves behind is one of the longer and more noticeable ones of the past three decades, replete with measures that continue to have a consumer-friendly and tangible effect on commerce, transportation, the environment and public health.
More than any other member of Congress, Lautenberg was responsible for the cultural turn against cigarettes in public spaces. A former two-pack-a-day smoker, he was the driving force behind the 1989 law that banned smoking on domestic airline flights, and he subsequently led the crusade to restrict smoking in most federal buildings. He was instrumental as well in the congressional moves to stop ocean dumping, to increase the legal age for drinking age to 21 and to tighten the standards of what constitutes drunken driving.
He was the principal author of one of the most recent tangible increases in federal gun control, the law enacted 16 years ago barring anyone convicted of domestic violence, including spousal or child abuse, from possessing a firearm.
Lautenberg battled frequently and successfully to protect Amtrak, whose major Northeast route slices across his state. And he was a proponent of increased funding for aviation security long before the Sept. 11 attacks.
He used his recovery in 2010 from a cancerous tumor in his stomach as a testimonial for the promise of nearly universal medical insurance coverage. And he was an eager promoter of higher taxes on the rich as the best way to ease the deficit without shrinking the size of government. “You have to work on the fundamentals,” he recently said. “Do you believe we are a society that puts humanity first, or puts accounting first?”
And while he had announced this winter, soon after his 89th birthday, that he wouldn’t be running for a sixth term in 2014, he had laid out a vigorous legislative agenda for his remaining time in office.
His central achievement since was reaching a bipartisan agreement with GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, for overhauling and expanding the reach of the nation’s primary law regulating both industrial and consumer chemicals.
His advocacy of a strong federal hand was perhaps predictable for someone with his life story. He was the the son of Polish and Russian immigrants who moved around New Jersey a dozen times during the Depression looking for work. His father, Sam, worked in silk mills, sold coal and tended bar before dying when the future senator was a teenager.
Young Lautenberg enlisted and served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II, then benefitted from the GI Bill to earn an economics degree from Columbia University. He and two boyhood friends started the payroll services business that has grown into ADP, one of the world’s largest computing services companies, making Lautenberg a perennial on the list of the 10 wealthiest members of Congress.
Although he was a big-time donor to Democrats as his business grew — his $90,000 contribution to George McGovern’s 1972 campaign earned him a place on the Nixon enemies list — he didn’t run for office until 1982. He was an early pioneer in the era of self-funding, spending what was then considered an amazingly large sum of $4 million to win an open Senate seat.
He retired after three terms, saying he couldn’t stand the money chase and didn’t want to spend any more of his own. Then he jumped at the chance to return two years later, when the person he liked least in New Jersey politics — his former Senate colleague, Robert G. Torricelli — was forced by scandal to give up his re-election plans late in the campaign. His party turned to Lautenberg when two House members chose not to take the risk. One of them was Robert Menendez, who got to the Senate six years later anyway. The other was Frank Pallone Jr., who is now eager for the newly open seat.