National NOW Times >> Spring, 2001 >> Article
Legislative Update - A Whole New World in
by Jan Erickson
The November elections showed
once again that few things in politics are predictable. Who would have
guessed that we would have a president who was not popularly elected,
propelled into office by a three-vote electoral college margin on the
basis of electoral manipulation, voter intimidation and a five-to-four
Supreme Court vote? It took more than $100 million in campaign spending
and the camouflaging of his true right-wing political coloration, but
George W. Bush has assumed the mantle of the world’s most powerful
Exit polls showed that the vast majority of voters agreed
with Vice President Al Gore’s more progressive agenda, but that did not
translate to Democrats winning control of the White House or either house
of Congress. Some experts have argued that the politics of appealing to
the middle—which both candidates practiced—results in a confused and
divided electorate. The extremely close presidential vote and nearly even
split in Congress is strong evidence that this may be true.
Bush Shows His Right-Wing Ties
The absence of a strong
electoral mandate does not mean that the Bush administration will exercise
restraint and moderation. Already that point has been well demonstrated in
the selection of several cabinet members from what one wit dubbed as the
“Taliban wing of the Republican party.” The worst of the lot are former
Missouri Governor and Senator John Ashcroft, an extreme right-winger, for
attorney general, and former governor of Wisconsin Tommy Thompson, who is
anti-abortion rights and pushed punishing state welfare initiatives, for
secretary of Health and Human Services.
NOW leaders, activists and
allies worked mightily to oppose these nominees and were able to win the
highest number of votes ever (42) against an attorney general candidate.
As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, the attorney general is in a
position to wield a great deal of power. Ashcroft’s record is one of
virulent opposition to abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, civil
rights and affirmative action programs. Concerns about him include that he
will do little to enforce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act
and prosecute clinic terrorists; will not show leadership for Violence
Against Women programs and anti-hate crimes initiatives; and will likely
seek out right-wing judicial candidates.
A unanimous confirmation
vote for Thompson may signal that the Senate will support more harsh
welfare-to-work schemes when they consider re-authorization of the 1996
Reproductive Rights In Danger
In addition to
reinstating the global gag rule, Bush is reported to have told abortion
rights opponents gathered in Washington for their annual protest on the
Roe v. Wade anniversary that his faith-based initiatives will be useful in
advancing their agenda. Critics are concerned that federal funds could
easily be used for proselytizing and discrimination as new proposals do
not contain safeguards against misuse and exempt those organization from
equal opportunity laws.
Next on the target list, apparently, is
withdrawing mifepristone (RU-486) from the market and ordering the Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) to review alleged safety concerns. Released
last fall after a 12-year delay and extensive use around the world,
mifepristone has one of the strongest safety records of any drug reviewed
by the FDA. Measures have also been introduced in Congress to restrict
which doctors can prescribe the drug.
NOW expects other strategies
to limit women’s reproductive rights, such as stopping embryonic stem cell
research, elevating fetal rights and proposing new variations on abortion
procedures bans. Highly-placed support for extremist measures will
invigorate NOW’s opponents inside and outside of Congress.
administration is also sure to mount assaults on environmental and
workplace safety regulations, to attempt to limit powers of the Federal
Communications Commission and other regulatory bodies, and to increase
defense spending and enact massive tax cuts favoring the well-to-do.
Bipartisanship or Concession?
Until feminists can make
changes in the makeup of Congress, NOW cannot expect much, if any,
positive action on priority issues like pay equity, universal health care,
an equal rights amendment, comprehensive child care, expansion of the
Family and Medical Leave Act and preservation of Social
Certainly, it is difficult to imagine what a closely divided
107th Congress will do. A clear and present danger is the potential for
capitulation by Democrats in the name of bipartisanship. Inter-party
co-operation—the current mantra—could threaten the integrity of such
important programs as Social Security, Medicare, Title IX (equal
educational opportunities) and others. Many insiders, though, are
projecting a continuing pattern of gridlock.
The House of
Representatives, split with 221 Republicans to 212 Democrats (and two
Independents), is slightly more hostile to abortion rights than last
Congress. There are about 221 abortion rights opponents, 140 abortion
rights supporters and another 77 members who have mixed records. It is
apparent that the House will continue to pass harmful and regressive
legislation in this area.
A ray of hope for NOW activists comes
from a decidedly more moderate Senate. The upper body, as everyone knows
by now, is 50-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting a deciding vote
when there is a tie. Thirty-five Senators are consistent in their support
of abortion rights, 18 have mixed votes and 47 are anti-abortion rights,
three fewer than in the last Congress.
arrangements have been adopted by the Senate, giving the Democrats more
opportunities to influence committee agendas and floor votes. The addition
of four new women Senators (for a record total of 13 women), coupled with
several new progressive men, may stop bad House-passed legislation and
help move forward a few women-friendly bills.
What’s Coming Up
A concerted effort to authorize education vouchers—by any
name—in the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act, the main bill for federal aid to education.
Possible threats to
gender equity programs and Title IX.
A major push to at least
partially privatize Social Security and Medicare.
A rapid drive to pass
regressive, anti-consumer bankruptcy reform legislation that would further
empower banking and credit card companies. (As the paper goes to press,
the House has already passed such a bill and has sent it over to the
Senate, where Sen. Feingold (D-WI) has put a hold on
Continuing and creative efforts to further limit access to
birth control and abortion services.
NOW activists and allies intend
to promote a re-structured welfare re-authorization plan, improvements in
federal aid for child care and early childhood development programs, and
new violence against women programs that aid battered women in the
workplace. Progressives will all be working for increasing the minimum
wage and expanding federal hate crimes statutes—both of which nearly
passed last Congress.
At last some good news.
the 106th Congress adjourned, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act
passed, providing $995 million over ten years for states to pay for
expanded care for low-income and uninsured women. If states participate,
women who have been diagnosed with cancer through the National Breast and
Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program can now receive critically needed
Finally, child care advocates won an unconditional victory.
Congress agreed in December to provide a total of $817 million increase in
the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a 69 percent increase in
discretionary funding that will give 150,000 more children affordable
care; a $933 million increase for Head Start, allowing nearly a million
more eligible children to participate; and an 88 percent increase in
funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers as well as expansion
of child care programs on 300 more college campuses.
in for a long two years until the next round of congressional elections,
but there will be nonetheless some opportunities to advance NOW’s issues
while stopping the right-wing legislative juggernaut. Activists who are
not already on NOW’s action alert email list should sign up right