The first documented law in the United States was passed in 1789 by Congress and signed by President George Washington. Americans have been voting on, passing, repealing, and amending legislation ever since. Many of these laws were impactful and significant to the nation’s history and growth and still are today.
From 1919 to 2019, Stacker has put together the following slideshow of major legislation passed in the United States federal government. Some state and local laws that are significant and garnered national attention are also included, but you’ll mostly read about legislation that has affected the country as a whole—be it culturally, politically, socially, or economically.
You cannot find a decade without a groundbreaking moment in legal history: Major voting rights legislation passed in the 1920s that broke domestic gender barriers, while the 1930s saw a radical attempt to isolate and distance America from international conflict. A G.I. Bill in the ‘40s revolutionized our perspective on veterans’ rights, rehabilitation, and reintegration into society, while the ‘50s saw the first Civil Rights Acts passed since Reconstruction. A ‘60s Equal Pay Act was a seminal step in curtailing workplace discrimination, and the landmark ‘70s case Roe v. Wade kickstarted a discussion on abortion rights that persists today.
The last four decades, too, have included monumental examples like the biggest tax cut in history in the 1980s, a unanimously passed digital copyright right law in the ‘90s, the post-9/11 PATRIOT Act in response to 21st-century terrorism, and the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which overhauled and expanded the entire American health-care system.
Data for this list was acquired from trusted online sources and news outlets. Read on to discover what major law was passed the year you were born and learn its name, the vote count (where relevant), and its impact and significance.
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U.S. legislation in 1919 passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The National Prohibition Act was ratified Jan. 16 and originally vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, only to be overruled by Congress with a 287-100 vote. The movement for prohibition began with concerns in the early 19th century about the negative effects of drinking. The National Prohibition Act was ineffective and failed to control the distribution and use of alcohol, and led to an increase in organized crime. Still, it remained in effect until the 21st Amendment was passed 14 years later.
[Pictured: New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition.]
On Aug. 18, 1920, women were empowered like never before in the United States after the 19th Amendment was passed. After a fight for women's rights that began more than a century before, the Nineteenth Amendment—the women's right to vote—was ratified to the U.S. Constitution. The act was passed after a sweeping victory of 304-89 votes—42 more than the required two-thirds majority. On voting day that year, more than 8 million women around the nation showed up to vote for the first time.
[Pictured: Suffragists watch as the Governor of Nevada signs the resolution for ratification of the 19th Amendment on Feb. 7, 1920.]
In an overwhelming vote of 78-1 in favor, the Emergency Quota Act was passed and signed into law May 19 by President Warren G. Harding to restrict immigration in the United States by imposing a temporary quota system. The Act was the first federal law to limit European immigration. It came in on a wave of anti-immigration hysteria following a series of events including the 1919 recession and the resulting high unemployment rates and governmental policy at the time of isolation.
[Pictured: Newly arrived European immigrants at Ellis Island in 1921.]
The Expatriation Act was passed in March of 1907 with a number of impositions, including stipulations that if a woman lived abroad for more than two years or was married to a man who wasn't eligible for citizenship, she could be revoked of her status. The Cable Act of 1922—also known as the Married Women's Independent Nationality Act—was passed Sept. 22 and allowed women to remain citizens even if they married men who were not.
[Pictured: Immigrants being sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens in 1928.]
Probably as a result of World War I and heightened national sentiments, a Nebraska law was put in place forbidding the teaching of any modern language other than English. The law was challenged and overruled, though, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Justice Reynolds, a teacher at Zion Parochial School who had been teaching German to a 10-year-old student, claiming it was an invasion of the 14th Amendment.
[Pictured: Justices of the Supreme Court (and others) in 1923, Chief Justice Taft is front and center.]
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Citizenship for Native Americans before the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act was hard to come by. Before the Civil War, only those with one-half or less Native American blood were offered citizenship. Most Native American women who had married U.S. citizens were offered citizenship by 1888, and in 1919, veterans of Native American descent who had fought in World War I could naturalize. Even after Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which was all-encompassing, citizenship rights were still governed by each state and the right to vote was often denied to Native Americans.
[Pictured: President Calvin Coolidge with Native American representatives near the south lawn of the White House on Feb. 18, 1925.]
Mail service was for the first time turned over to private contractors after congressional pressure on the post office with the Air Mail Act of 1925, also known as the Kelly Act. This was the first chess piece to be moved in an effort to accelerate aviation technology and aircraft performance. Under this piece of legislation, eight airline routes were advertised from which carriers could receive up to 80% of postal revenue.
[Pictured: A U.S. Air Mail Service biplane with postal workers on an airfield in Cleveland Ohio in 1925.]
A year later on May 20, Congress approved the Air Commerce Act making the government responsible for air commerce, airways, navigation improvement, and the enforcement of flight safety restrictions. This act opened the floodgates for U.S. expansion and development of its aviation program. Now the U.S. Post Service could pay private airlines for mail delivery services and base payments on shipping weight.
[Pictured: Group at U.S. Air Mail airplane in 1926; Herbert Hoover, second from left.]
The Radio Act was made official law on Feb. 23 and put the newly established Federal Radio Commission (FRC) in charge of regulating radio. This allowed much tighter restrictions and limitations on broadcasting licenses: The FRC had the power to deny licenses and control frequencies and power levels, unlike the Commerce Department that had previous regulatory powers.
[Pictured: W.H.G. Bullard, chairman of the newly created Federal Radio Board,”tunes in" on a radio set on April 14, 1927.]
In efforts to avoid another World War, The Kellogg-Briand Pact—also known as the Pact of Paris—was an agreement to outlaw war signed by the United States and 14 other nations. The U.S. Senate ratified the pact in a vote of 85-1, but only after noting that U.S. would still reserve the right to self-defense or to act against any nations that broke the agreement. Later, 47 other countries would sign the pact. Despite this and other anti-war efforts, militarism continued to rise through the 1930s and the break of World War II in 1939.
[Pictured: Man displays book with “Pact of Paris” signatures in 1928.]
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As per the U.S. Constitution, each state had at least one Representative and no more than one for every 30,000 people, but there was no clear definition on how large future Congresses for a growing America should be. Before passing the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, the method for calculating apportionment led to a decrease of representation for smaller, less urbanized states leading to an eruption of battles between rural and urban factions. On June 18, the Permanent Appointment Act was signed into law and capped House membership at the level taken from the 1910 Census, and enacted a procedure to automatically reapportion House seats every 10 years.
[Pictured: President Hoover addresses the House of Representatives on Feb. 22, 1932.]
After the stock market crash in 1929, protectionism—protecting domestic industries against foreign competition usually by way of tariffs or subsidies—efforts were on the rise. New legislation for tariffs narrowly passed in the Senate and was signed into law on June 17 by President Herbert Hoover despite a petition to veto with more than 1,000 signatures of economists. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act—known formally as the Tariff Act of 1930—was created to protect U.S. businesses and farmers by raising import duties by more than 20%, leading to a loss of confidence in Wall Street and the fail of many overseas banks. It was widely considered a signal of U.S isolationism.
[Pictured: Sen. Smoot and Rep. Hawley on the steps of the Capitol on Dec. 7, 1929, addressing a large gathering who presented petitions for tax reductions.]
Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814 after witnessing a British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Maryland during the War of 1812. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating it as the national anthem. An act formally making it so was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Hoover on March 3, 1931.
[Pictured: An artist’s depiction of Francis Scott Key observing the bombardment and U.S. Flag over Fort McHenry in Maryland.]
The Norris–La Guardia Act was passed in 1932 to protect organized labor and unions. Labor unions were restrained by legal and judicial barriers from certain activities and could be taken to court for striking, boycotting, picketing, and the like. The act also kept employers from forcing employees to sign an agreement to not join a union upon penalty of being fired.
[Pictured: United States Congressman George W. Norris and New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia.]
After nearly a decade and a half of Prohibition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the effort to repeal that legislation by signing the Beer and Wine Revenue Act on March 22. This act levied federal tax on all alcoholic beverages, but gave states individual power to further regulate as each saw fit. On Dec. 5 of that same year, the 21st Amendment was ratified and the era of Prohibition was finally over.
[Pictured: Customers celebrate Prohibition’s end at a Philadelphia bar in December 1933.]
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Following the era of organized crime by the likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde, the first piece of legislation to promote national gun control was the National Firearms Act passed on June 26. These efforts began on the heels of President Roosevelt's “New Deal for Crime” to curtail gang-related violations. The act imposed taxes on the manufacture and sale of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, and mandated all sales be recorded in a national registry.
[PIctured: A man holds a gun in a hunting shop circa 1930.]
In 1935, the Wagner Act—formally the National Labor Relations Act—granted most workers, though not agricultural and domestic workers, the ability to join or organize labor unions and bargain with their employers collectively. The National Labor Relations Board was also created as part of this legislation and was tasked with acting as regulator and arbiter of labor relations. Republicans and big business greatly opposed the act and took it to court resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court of 5-4 to uphold the Wagner Act.
[Pictured: Striking miners in Ward, West Virginia dated Aug. 4, 1931.]
In an effort to protect small businesses from predatory pricing and price discrimination and help keep wholesalers from being excluded from the purchasing chain, the Robinson-Patman Act—also known as the Anti-Price Discrimination Act—was passed in 1936. The act was meant to discourage unfair competition and prohibited discrimination by large companies in pricing, promotional allowances, and advertising. Businesses were required by this act to sell their products at the same prices across the board, independent of the purchase volume of the buyer.
[Pictured: The interior of a general store in Moundville, Alabama, in 1936.]
From 1935 to 1939, excluding 1938, Neutrality Acts—legislation to try and keep the United States out of war—were passed on a wave of isolationism in the wake of World War I. Spurred on by the belief that U.S. engagement had started through loans and trades with the allies and driven by business interests, these acts banned providing arms and loans to countries involved in war and restricted American travel on belligerent watercraft. The 1937 act furthered these impositions to include civil wars but did award one special presidential concession: At the President's discretion, belligerent nations could acquire any nonmunition items with immediate payment and as long as they were not carried on American ships.
[Pictured: President Franklin D. Roosevelt makes a radio address appealing for the country to maintain neutrality in 1939.]
To avoid being vetoed nine days after Congress adjourned, FDR signed 121 bills on June 25. One of these was the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), passed to ban oppressive child labor. It set the minimum hourly wage at 25 cents and restricted the workweek to eight hours a day, five days a week.
[Pictured: A young cotton mill spinner, Sadie Pfeifer, as photographed in 1908 by Lewis Hine in Lancaster, South Carolina.]
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On Sept. 21, FDR came before Congress to request amendments to a series of neutrality acts so that the United States could send aid to allies in Europe on the verge of a second World War and in opposition of the Nazi regime. FDR likened not amending these acts to passively aiding an aggressor while denying help to nations being victimized. Congress conceded and made the suggested changes on Nov 4.—just the beginning of amendments and alleviations to come on the U.S. involvement in World War II.
[Pictured: President Franklin D. Roosevelt appealing to Congress for the repeal of the Neutrality Act on Sept. 26, 1939.]
Efforts in 1940 for advocacy in support of a coup d'etat—the violent overthrow of an existing government—were deemed criminal offenses with the passage of the Smith Act (officially the Alien Registration Act). This legislation was born during World War II, partly out of fear the United States might be harboring Nazi or Communist subversion. In 1941, the act came into play to prosecute leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and was used in 1949 against members of the American Communist Party. After going to the Supreme Court in Dennis v. the United States in 1951, the convictions of the American Communist Party leaders were upheld, as was the constitutionality of the Smith Act.
[Pictured: People wait in line to obtain paperwork required under the Alien Registration Act of 1940 in New York City dated Aug. 23, 1940.]
World War II was in full swing in 1941, though the United States was not yet fully in the fight. The Lend-Lease Act was passed March 11 of that year, nine months before full U.S. involvement. This act made it possible to offer military aid and munitions to foreign nations the president deemed vital to the defense of the United States and for which Congress appropriated money. This allowed the United States to support its interests in World War II without direct involvement.
[Pictured: American-built 155 mm howitzers shipped to England as lend-lease circa 1941.]
A national code for the handling and treatment of American flags was passed by Congress in June of this year and amended on Dec. 22 so that it became public law. In associated sections, conduct during the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, and manner of delivery were also addressed. The code did not mandate any overarching penalties for misuse, but left it up to each state's own laws and discretion.
[Pictured: Tribute to the flag on Memorial Day in Greenbelt, Maryland in May of 1942.]
The Magnuson Act, or Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act, was passed by Congress in 1943 to dismantle exclusionary laws against Chinese immigration and implement an immigration quota to 105 annual visas. The act was passed in large part because the U.S. and China were allies in World War II, and sought to squash Japanese propaganda seeking to weaken allied ties. Repeal efforts resulted in little pushback as the Immigration Act of 1924 already excluded aliens ineligible for citizenship to enter the United States—including the Chinese.
[Pictured: An example of a Chinese immigrant’s documentation a case file under the Chinese Exclusion Acts.]
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In efforts to assist post-World War II veterans, the G.I. Bill, or Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, was enacted with robust benefits including establishing hospitals for veterans, making low-interest mortgages available, granting stipends to cover tuition and trade school expenses, offering job training and hiring privileges, and more. Over the course of five years, the bill was able to offer almost $4 billion from its unemployment compensation program to nearly 9 million veterans.
[Pictured: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the G.I. Bill in the Oval Office on June 22, 1944.]
Repeals and amendments that easing immigration restrictions in the United States began in 1943 with the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act, and in 1945, a component was added for gender and later for Asian exclusion overall. In 1945, the War Brides Act allowed military men who married while abroad to bring their wives home on a non-quota basis outside of racial exclusion regulations.
[Pictured: English war brides photographed in October of 1945.]
As World War II came to a close, hoards of U.S. soldiers returned home from abroad. At the same time, the economy was transitioning away from wartime production. With concerns about finding post-war employment swirling and the Great Depression still fresh in most minds, President Harry S. Truman signed into federal law the Employment Act of 1946. The act in part declared a continuing policy and governmental responsibility of “maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.”
[Pictured: American soldiers arrive in New York from Europe circa 1945.]
Security in the United States was made more comprehensive and streamlined in July of 1947 when the National Security Act was signed into existence by President Truman. This legislation resulted in the creation of the Secretary of Defense to oversee the nation's military and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to advise the president on military strategy and planning. It also established the National Security Council (NSC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and separate departments for each branch of the armed forces.
[Pictured: W. Stuart Symington, first Secretary of the Air Force and Gen. Carl Spaatz, first Air Force Chief of Staff at a press conference announcing the new organizational set-up for the Department of the Air Force, 1947.]
The passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) marks the first major law to address water pollution. Legislators had pushed more than 100 bills to address the issue of water pollution, but made little progress until industrialization and urbanization from World War II resulted in pollution in U.S. water systems that was so obvious Congress couldn't ignore it. This first act for anti-pollution efforts achieved little at the time but was redone and amended in 1972 to much more success.
[Pictured: Members of Congress take a tour regarding on water pollution on July 2, 1969.]
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After its creation two years earlier, the CIA was awarded more powers with the passage of the Central Intelligence Agency Act signed into law by President Truman. The act allowed the organization to employ confidential fiscal and administrative procedures and exempted the CIA from typical expenditure restrictions.
[Pictured: CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia.]
Congress established the National Science Foundation (NSF)—a foundation supporting research and education in all the nonmedical fields of science, mathematics, and engineering—after passing the NSF Act this year, inspired by technological and scientific advancements of World War II.
[Pictured: National Science Board Members dated July 1951.]
Until the passing of the 22nd Amendment, there was no formal cap on the number of terms a U.S. president could serve. George Washington set an unofficial precedent when he stepped down after two terms in office, but when Franklin D. Roosevelt came into the presidency, he was elected to a third term in 1940 and fourth term in 1944. The 22nd Amendment, passed on Feb. 27,1951, limited the presidency to two terms and capped presidential service at 10 years.
[Pictured: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt waves after taking his 4th Oath of Office in Washington D.C. on Jan. 20, 1945.]
After being vetoed by President Truman, the House voted 278-113 and the Senate 57-26 to override the veto and pass the McCarran-Walter Act in June of this year. The act was an immigration law aimed to prevent communist subversion, but was seen as xenophobic and discriminatory by its opponents. The McCarran-Walter Act went into effect in December and was the standard for U.S. immigration until new legislation passed in 1965.
[Pictured: An anti-communist picket in New York City on March 26, 1949.]
The Small Business Administration (SBA) was created in the passage of the Small Business Act on July 30. The SBA, at its simplest definition, functions to aid all small business interests and concerns. The act also mandated that small business be offered a fair amount of government contracts and surplus property sales.
[Pictured: The regional director for the Small Business Administration in Los Angeles with posted contract bid notices in 1958.]
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The Red Scare was still running its course in 1954, and U.S. Congress took action with the Communist Control Act. The act served as a declaration that the Communist Party—“...an instrumentality of a conspiracy to overthrow the Government of the United States”—should be outlawed. However, it took no decisive steps to make it so.
[Pictured: President Eisenhower receives a report from Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission on March 30, 1954.]
The first legislation on the issue of the country's air quality was the Air Pollution Control Act. The law provided funds for research into air pollution control.
[Pictured: Smog obscures the view of the Chrysler Building from Empire State Building, New York City on Nov. 20, 1953.]
The United States took big steps in motor vehicle transportation with the Federal-Aid Highway Act, signed into law on June 29 by President Dwight Eisenhower. A 41,000-mile network of highways was to be constructed across the United States with the intention of safer roads, more efficient routes, fewer traffic jams, and eliminate anything that might get in the way of safe transcontinental travel.
[Pictured: A busy motorway linking the Hollywood and Ventura freeways in Los Angeles, California.]
The monumental Civil Rights Act resulted in the creation of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, tasked with enforcing federal policies affecting civil rights and investigating complaints. The act was propelled into and through Congress by civil rights advocacy groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
[Pictured: An integrated classroom at Anacostia High School, Washington, D.C. dated Sept. 10, 1957.]
Not long after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The act was intended to improve and strengthen all levels of the U.S. school systems and incentivize students to pursue further education. The NDEA offered fellowships and loans to students and bolstered education in the areas of science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages.
[Pictured: Classmates in New York City’s Stuyvesant High School examine science projects in 1959.]
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The labor movement in the mid-to-late-'50s was under intense congressional scrutiny for corruption, racketeering, and other misconduct, with certain committees and President Dwight D. Eisenhower investigating ties between labor and organized crime. To address gaps in the Wagner Act and the Taft-Hartley Act, the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, or Landrum-Griffin Act, was signed into law in Fall 1959.
[Pictured: David Dubinsky with Kayser-Roth strikers outside the company building on June 15, 1959.]
After a series of bombings on schools and churches in the South, President Eisenhower decided it was time for further civil rights legislation in America. Another Civil Rights Act created the Civil Rights Commission and introduced penalties for attempts to obstruct a citizen from registering to vote or from voting.
[Pictured: Demonstrators in the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.]
President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps as a part of the Department of State on March 1 of this year with the passage of the Peace Corps Act. The agency would be given permanent funding to train and send U.S. men and women to help foreign nations in development efforts. During the week following its creation, thousands of requests inundated Washington from young adults hoping to volunteer. In 1961, more than 750 volunteers were sent to serve in 13 different countries across the world.
[Pictured: President John F. Kennedy greets Peace Corps volunteers on August 28, 1961.]
In 1962, President Kennedy signed off on the Trade Expansion Act. The legislation is widely regarded as the most important passed by the 87th Congress. The act was the embodiment of an effort to mat the new trade policy concepts and patterns of the world, and gave the president more authority than ever to cut tariffs.
[Pictured: President John F. Kennedy signs the trade expansion bill on Oct. 11, 1962.]
One of the first legislative attempts to reduce gender discrimination in the workplace was the Equal Pay Act. The act was to give equal wages to workers across the board for the same work regardless of race, religion, national origin, or sex.
[Pictured: President John F. Kennedy signs the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963.]
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The seventh amendment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, lays out five major classes and its protections of those classes including race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. This act also included coverage for those with physical or mental disabilities, reprisal, and even sexual orientation. During the passage of this act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was also created as a division to monitor discrimination in public and private sectors.
[Pictured: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on dated July 2, 1964.]
In the mid-'60s, African-Americans were still finding themselves barred from voting rights. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to overcome state and local governmental barriers in place to keep African-Americans from exercising their Fifteenth Amendment right to vote.
[Pictured: President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr.at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.]
The leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 44 in 1965 was automobile accidents. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided enough was enough and on Sept. 9 of the following year signed into law the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. That law was immediately followed up by the Highway Safety Act. These two pieces of legislation put the government in charge of creating and upholding safety standards for cars and U.S. roadways.
[Pictured: Automotive designers test a car layout at General Motors circa 1960.]
Another measure is taken to prevent discrimination in the workplace with the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), protecting those between 40 and 70 years old. The law was amended in 1986 to remove the upper age cap.
[Pictured: President Kennedy speaks on behalf of the anti-discrimination order to the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee in 1961.]
After a decade of violent crime in the1960s and following the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the government decided it was time to take another look at its gun control laws. The Gun Control Act of 1968 updated verbiage on destructive devices to include things like bombs, mines, and grenades, and added the definition for machine guns. The bill also banned guns with “no sporting purpose”; mandated an age restriction of 21 and older for the purchase of handguns; imposed restrictions on gun purchases from felons, the mentally ill, and others; and required all manufactured or imported guns have a serial number.
[Pictured: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Gun Control Act of 1968 into law on Oct. 22, 1968.]
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The Tax Reform Act of 1969 is the first legislation to make the distinction between grant-making and service-providing institutions. It was created to overhaul federal taxes for nonprofit institutions and divided those organizations into two categories: public charities with a broad foundation of public endorsement, and private foundations usually supported by contributions of a smaller number of people or an individual.
[Pictured: President Richard Nixon's first term cabinet photographed on Jan. 22, 1969.]
The Occupational and Safety Health Act was passed to better protect individuals in the workplace and ensure employers create environments free of or taking precautions against hazards like toxic chemical exposure, mechanical dangers, unsanitary conditions, and more. The act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor. The first was a research organization to create the standards for health and safety, and the second an agency to regulate and uphold them in the 50 U.S. states.
[Pictured: President Richard Nixon wears a hard hat and speaks with a worker while visiting the Bethleham Steel plant in San Francisco, California.]
Legislation to regulate how money was raised and spent toward U.S. federal campaigns and elections was passed in 1971 with the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and officially signed into law by President Richard Nixon on Jan. 19. FECA created limitations and restrictions on contributions to federal candidates and political parties, and completely prohibited certain corporate and union contributions, speech, and expenditures. The act also required that these contributions and expenditures be disclosed in the campaigns of those for federal office positions.
[Pictured: President Richard Nixon delivers the State of the Union address on Jan. 22, 1971.]
The Equal Rights Amendment was originally written in 1921 by suffragist Alice Paul and had been introduced to Congress every year since 1923, and finally passed this year. Hawaii became the first of 34 other states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, but the bill hit anti-feminist backlash in the mid-'70s and failed to become ratified by the necessary 38 states by its July 1982 deadline.
[Pictured: Women’s Equal Rights parade in Washington D.C. on Aug. 26, 1977.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that access to safe, legal abortions is a constitutional right in its famous Roe v. Wade case. The ruling determined a woman can terminate an early pregnancy within the first trimester. The decision affected abortion laws of 46 other states.
[Pictured: Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and her lawyer Gloria Allred on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989.]
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With the continued rise of computer technology came increased privacy concerns. The Privacy Act of 1974 was passed to address the fears on how computerized databases could affect individual privacy and created rights in regard to personal data.
[Pictured: A man at a workstation with an IBM System 370 mainframe computer in the background circa 1970.]
The government expanded upon its 1966 Education of the Handicapped Act with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA or EHA, known today as IDEA). The act mandates that schools accepting government funds make education equally accessible to physically and mentally disabled children.
[Pictured: A group of students gather in a common area at Normandy Elementary School in Colorado dated 1970.]
The Copyright Act of 1976 was passed in an effort to protect created works and their authors. The act prevents the direct copying of any or all parts of a work, but does not cover the intellectual property contained within a work.
[Pictured: Copyright card catalogs at the Library of Congress.]
In efforts to address declining conditions in American cities, the Community Reinvestment Act was passed with a 54-46 vote in the Senate and a 384-51 vote in the House. The act prohibited denying or increasing banking costs to residents of racially defined neighborhoods, and encouraged efforts to meet the credit needs of all residents regardless of income level.
[Pictured: President Jimmy Carter signs the Housing and Community Development Act on October 12, 1977.]
Before the Presidential Records Act (PRA) was passed, official presidential records were private. The PRA made these records public and mandated their management. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) gathers most of these records, which are disclosed publicly unless the Archivist of the United States, the incumbent president, or the appropriate former president requests the records be kept private.
[Pictured: The interior of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building in Washington D.C.]
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The U.S. Supreme court case of Addington v. Texas set a standard for committing an individual for psychiatric treatment involuntarily. The case raised that the burden of proof for “clear and convincing evidence” is a requirement to commit a person for psychiatric treatment.
[Pictured: A photo illustration of a court ruling.]
The Refugee Act of 1980 answered the obvious need in post-Vietnam America for an updated immigration policy. The legislation amended the earlier Immigration and Nationality Act and the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, raising the annual refugee cap from 17,400 to 50,000 and putting in place a system to review and update the refugee ceiling to meet emergency or special situations.
[Pictured: A Vietnamese refugee family is reunited at a Colorado Airport in February 1981.]
Newly minted President Ronald Reagan signed off on the largest tax cut in history with the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA). His rationale was that instead of using tax cuts to incentivize individuals to buy goods, the government would use them to incentivize businesses to work and produce goods.
[Pictured: Ronald Reagan gives a televised address from the Oval Office outlining his plan for Tax Reduction Legislation in July 1981.]
Paul Ferber, who owned an adult store in New York City, was charged after selling two films depicting young boys masturbating. Ferber took the case to court, where it traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that his First and 14th Amendments rights were being violated. The court upheld the law in a unanimous 9-0 decision, definitively ruling that child pornography is an exception to the First Amendment.
[Pictured: The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.]
By a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government funding for chaplains by state legislatures was constitutional because of the "unique history" of the United States. The federal government in 1791 had authorized a hired chaplain for Congress precisely three days before the ratification of the Bill of Rights, which codified the First Amendment as U.S. Law. The case was brought to the Supreme Court after Nebraska state Senator Ernie Chambers sued on the grounds that opening prayer before the session by a state-sponsored chaplain was a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
[Pictured: A copy of the U.S. Bill of Rights.]
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The Comprehensive Crime Control Act (CCCA) of 1984 was a culmination of 11 years of bipartisan efforts for criminal justice reform. The law increased the tools for prosecutors to go after criminals, added new protections for the accused, and included a provision permitting local law enforcement agencies to share up to 80% of the proceeds derived from civil asset forfeitures with federal authorities. This contributed to a 37% rise in drug arrests.
[Pictured: Interior of a prison.]
Alabama resident Larry Gene Heath in 1981 hired a pair of hitmen to kill his pregnant wife. The two men kidnapped her and murdered her in Georgia, where Heath was eventually tried for murder. Later that year he was indicted in Alabama for capital murder, which prompted Heath to plead Double Jeopardy. Heath's appeal was brought to the Supreme Court in 1985, where courts ruled that because of the doctrine of "dual sovereignty" in respect to federalism, the Fifth Amendment does not bar two separate states from trying the same individual twice for the same act.
[Pictured: The Alabama Supreme Court building.]
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act extended government restrictions on wiretaps to include electronic data transmission, and added new provisions prohibiting access to stored electronic communications and protecting phone calls in transit. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that the law is outdated as written, though the law has been amended by several later laws including the controversial USA PATRIOT Act.
[Pictured: A person demonstrates of installation of a wiretap device in a telephone.]
After Louisiana required evolution and creationism be taught side by side, Don Aguillard sued the governor. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the law amounted to an unconstitutional infringement of the First Amendment. The decision was based on the three-prong Lemon test, which says the government's action must have a legitimate secular purpose; must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and must not result in an excessive entanglement of the government and religion.
[Pictured: An illustration depicts the evolution of man as found in the Wellcome Image Library.]
In the late ‘80s, an ad parody in Hustler mocked televangelist Jerry Falwell, prompting him to sue the publication. In a case that went to the Supreme Court, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell ruled that parodies of public figures—including ones created to cause emotional distress—are protected by the First Amendment. The ruling also determined any ruling be made under the same standard applied in libel or slander cases, which say punishable parodies should contain a false statement of fact made with "actual malice."
[Pictured: President Ronald Reagan meets with Jerry Falwell in the Oval Office on March 15, 1983.]
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The Whistleblower Protection Act protects federal employees from retaliation if they choose to disclose information about dishonest or illegal activities occurring in the government. Notably, the vote passed the Senate unanimously with 97 votes in favor.
[Pictured: (L to R) Whistleblowers Glenn Walp, Steve Doran, and Jaret McDonald raise their hands to be sworn in before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Feb. 26, 2003, in Washington D.C.]
A close 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court, Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health was the first “right to die” case ever taken up by the court. The court ruled in favor of the State of Missouri after significant attention from national media, ruling that it was acceptable to require "clear and convincing evidence" of a patient's wish to be removed from life support.
[Pictured: A hospital bed with life support systems.]
After President George H.W. Bush used his veto to shoot down the more comprehensive Civil Rights Act of 1990, Congress tried again in 1991, passing updates to federal labor law based on the decisions of the Supreme Court in several recent cases. The passage of this act allowed employees greater freedom to take their employers to court in cases of workplace discrimination, while also placing caps on the number of damages that could be awarded based on employer size.
[Pictured: President H.W. Bush in the Oval Office on Jan. 25, 1991.]
The landmark case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, et al. v. Robert P. Casey redefined several provisions outlined under Roe v. Wade while reaffirming that states are prohibited from banning most abortions. The opinion of the court, which ruled 5-4 on the case, also decided that states may regulate abortions to protect the health of the mother and the life of the fetus—affirming laws passed by the State of Pennsylvania in the late '80s—and had the right to prohibit abortions of "viable" fetuses.
[Pictured: The front line of the March for Women’s Lives rally held in Washington D.C. on April 5, 1992.]
White House Press Secretary James Brady was permanently disabled in 1981 from an injury he sustained while saving President Ronald Reagan from assassination. What followed was a renewed push for gun control legislation, resulting in “The Brady Bill,” a law harshly opposed in Congress by Second Amendment advocates. Bill Clinton signed off in 1993 on The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) maintained by the FBI before a gun is purchased.
[Pictured: President Barack Obama greets James Brady at the White House on March 30, 2011.]
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The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was the largest crime-control bill in U.S. history. Not only was it extensive and lengthy—six years were spent putting it together—but it included a more than $30 billion dollar package. The act had many parts, but some of its prominent provisions included a "three strikes" mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders, the funds to hire 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in prison funding, and an expansion on death penalty-eligible offenses.
[Pictured: President Bill Clinton speaks about his crime bill in the White House Aug. 11, 1994.]
The Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) mandated that the U.S. Congress and related agencies abided by the same labor, civil rights, and workplace safety and health laws as the federal government and private businesses in the United States. The passage of this law further created the Office of Compliance for enforcement of the CAA.
[Pictured: Members of the 115th Congress on the opening day of the 2017 session.]
Marijuana began its long and continuing journey to legalization when California voters passed Proposition 215, allowing for the medical use of marijuana. Since this ruling, 32 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico have made moves to enact similar legislation and approval for comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs.
[Pictured: A person holds a cannabis plant.]
The Taxpayer Relief Act is one of the largest tax-reduction acts in U.S. history. It introduced the Child Tax Credit, which launched in 1998 at $400 per child under 17 and increased to $500 the following year. Other provisions include the increase of the unified credit limit, tax exclusion from the sale of a personal residence, tax relief for education and retirement savings, and a $1.3 million exclusion for farms and small businesses.
[Pictured: President William Clinton and Vice President Al Gore address a crowd at the White House on Aug. 10, 1993.]
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) implemented two 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties: the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. The act also addressed a number of other copyright-related issues and was the first of many evaluations by the government on how to navigate the relationship between technology and copyright law.
[Pictured: A stock illustration of law and digital media.]
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The Financial Services Modernization Act, or Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, repealed many of the restrictions from the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that had created a separation between commercial and investment banking. It also partly deregulated the financial industry and gave businesses in the financial sector the ability to integrate their operations, invest in one another, and consolidate.
[Pictured: Sen.Phil Gramm (R-Texas), Rep.Jim Leach (R-Iowa), and Rep. Thomas J. Bliley, Jr. (R-Virginia), the co-sponsors of the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act.]
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Dec. 12 in the Bush v. Gore case to reverse a Florida Supreme Court request for a selective manual recount of that state's U.S. presidential election ballots. This decision swayed the election in favor of Republican candidate George W. Bush.
[Pictured: Texas newspapers reporting on the presidential race dated Nov. 27, 2000.]
Just a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT Act—in full, Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. The law's purpose was to offer increased and better security in order to reduce terroristic threats by expanding search and surveillance power granted to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
[Pictured: President George W. Bush signs the USA Patriot Act in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 26, 2001.]
On the heels of the USA PATRIOT Act came the Homeland Security Act, which streamlined U.S. security with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The act further stipulated a number of measures to increase the U.S national security and placed a number of existing agencies under the DHS umbrella.
[Pictured: President George W. Bush signs the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2004 on Oct. 1, 2003.]
With the war in Afghanistan in full swing, the passage of The Military Family Tax Relief Act created a number of provisions to ease restrictions for military members on tax credits available to them and an extension by the IRS of its three-year period for amending a tax return. The act also increased the benefits received in the event of death for surviving family members, included travel expense deductions for National Guard members, and created a new definition of the tax term "principal residence” so military members could receive a taxable gain exclusion from the sale of a private residence.
[Pictured: President George W. Bush shakes the hand of a veteran after signing the Military Family Tax Relief Act of 2003 in the Oval Office on Nov. 11, 2003.]
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After a five-year battle led by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (also known as “Laci and Conner's Law”) was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The law recognized a fetus in utero as a victim of criminal attacks when an assault on a pregnant woman results in injury or death of her and the unborn child and called for a perpetrator in such an instance to be charged with two acts of violence. The law clearly stated it did not apply to consensual abortion or medical treatment. The passage of this act resulted in changes to 68 existing federal laws dealing with acts of violence.
[Pictured: President George W. Bush signs the Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004 on April 1, 2004.]
The Energy Policy Act came after four years of policy attempts. It aimed to address growing energy problems and introduce changes to policies on tax incentives for greener practices.
[Pictured: President George W. Bush holds the box containing the energy bill after signing The Energy Policy Act of 2005 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.]
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act was passed to address border security issues, implement better enforcement, and authorize increased funding levels for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). The final bill was a compromise deal brokered between House Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter and resulted in a three-category division for the more than 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally: legalization after certain conditions, departure before being able to apply for legal status, and mandated departure.
[Pictured: President George W. Bush delivers a speech about immigration reform on March 27, 2006, in Washington D.C.]
Energy legislation, energy prices, and global warming concerns were high on the congressional agenda in 2007. The resulting Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) outlined some major provisions to improve energy standards.
[Pictured: President George W. Bush with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (2L), with U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman (L) and other lawmakers, after signing the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.]
For fear of a collapse of the U.S. financial system during the subprime mortgage crisis that stemmed from an earlier expansion of mortgage credit, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (EESA) signed into law on Oct. 3 by President George W. Bush. The act sought to restore liquidity to credit markets and minimize foreclosures on federally owned mortgages, among many other provisions.
[Pictured: President George W. Bush speaks on the Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 at Guernsey Office Products in Virginia on Oct. 7, 2008.]
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The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was meant to help stimulate job creation and generate education reform. States were encouraging to take on new standards and practices to improve the preparedness of high school graduates for college or a career; better track the growth of students; and increase turnaround for declining students. The legislation also introduced tax cuts and invested hundreds of billions in funds over a period of two years to areas like energy, health care, infrastructure, and education.
[Pictured: President Barack Obama signs the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Feb. 17, 2009, in Denver, Colorado.]
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare, presented sweeping health care reform for the country. Some of its most important provisions included the extension of coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, lower health care costs, improved system efficiency, and efforts to eliminate industry practices including rescission and denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions.
[Pictured: President Barack Obamasigns the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House on March 23, 2010.]
An amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 was passed on Jan. 4 in order to update the prior act's verbiage and lower the maximum lead content for plumbing products from 8% to a weighted average of 0.25%. The law also created exemptions for those products not used in potable services like manufacturing and irrigation, as well as “toilets, bidets, urinals, fill valves, flush-o-meter valves, tub fillers, shower valves, service saddles, or water distribution main gate valves that are 2 inches in diameter or larger.”
[Pictured: Water from a faucet fills a glass.]
Unlike much of President Obama's other legislation, the Protect Our Kids Act of 2012 had overwhelming bipartisan support and was unanimously passed in the Senate. The act was designed to address the concerning statistic that more than 2,000 children a year died from abuse and neglect, with nearly 82% of those kids younger than 4. The law created a bipartisan, two-year, 12-member Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.
[Pictured: A photo illustration of child abuse prevention awareness.]
The Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 mandated that all states report certain required information on the death of any person who is “detained, arrested, en route to incarceration, or incarcerated in state or local facilities or a boot camp prison.” The law further created penalties for not doing so.
[Pictured: A watch tower at a state prison facility.]
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Despite acting as an amendment to the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act passed in 2006, the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act is the first open data law in the United States. The act was designed to increase the transparency and quality of the government's award data. The act charges the Department of the Treasury and Office of Management and Budget to establish standards across the government on how to report spending data associated with federal awards and to make that data public and accessible.
[Pictured: A person works at a laptop computer.]
The Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges resulted in a 5-4 decision ruling that states cannot prohibit same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions. After groups of same-sex couples came forward to sue their respective state agencies for bans on or refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in all six cases. The ruling meant same-sex marriage is a legal right across the nation; and that the restrictions 14 remaining states still had on same-sex marriage could not be enforced.
[Pictured: Same-sex marriage supporters rejoice after the U.S Supreme Court hands down a ruling regarding same-sex marriage June 26, 2015.]
The Global Food Security Act outlines provisions for and authorizes the U.S. to offer foreign aid to developing countries in efforts to “promote global food security, resilience, and nutrition.” The act allocated more than $7 million toward initiatives to address agriculture, small-scale food production, and global nutrition. The legislation affirmed the U.S. role in ending hunger, poverty, and malnutrition worldwide, and reinforced the government's approach to better food quality and nutrition with the Feed the Future initiative.
[Pictured: An example of assistance via a food relief program in Zimbabwe.]
The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act, or “Forever G.I. Bill,” is a 68-page long conglomeration of 18 different bills that brought the biggest overhaul for veterans' education benefits in decades. Many of the reforms outlined in the act had been sought by veterans, service members, their families, and their advocates for years. The bill included the eradication of the time limit for veterans to use their education benefits; expanded benefits to include a more inclusive range of service members; promoted STEM programs; and restored benefits for veterans whose universities had shut down.
[Pictured: A female soldier with academic books.]
In a landslide vote of 99-1, America's Water Infrastructure Act provides funds for a variety of infrastructure projects and improvements to U.S. water sources and provides conservation, water pollution control, and more to be conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers. Some of these efforts include maintaining inland waterways, deepening “nationally significant ports,” upgrading dams and irrigation systems, increasing water storage infrastructure, and taking steps to deauthorize a number of unnecessary projects to free up almost $4 billion and a 1,000 project-long backlog.
[Pictured: President Donald Trump signs America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 on Oct. 23, 2018.]
The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019, which became law on Dec. 20, principally expands retirement eligibility and amends certain aspects of withdrawals. Previously, contributions to retirement accounts were capped at age 70.5, the same starting point for mandatory distributions—or required retirement withdrawals from one’s account. Now, the contribution age limit is repealed; as long as one is still working, they can contribute to their plans. And the mandatory withdrawals don’t begin until age 72, which, as a partner at Custom Wealth Solutions Kyle Whipple explains to Rachel Hartman of U.S. News & World Report, “[allows] for IRA owners to defer paying tax on those funds while they, hopefully, keep growing.”
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