Historians Differ on Law's Impact

Elian Gonzales' (search) 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 grievance.

Some historians say the case of Terri Schiavo (search) 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 (search) 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 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 death.

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 government mistakes.

"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 been set.

"Any intensely private and painful decisions that families render now suddenly could be made public," he said.