The 103rd Congress vs. the 104th: The Party's Over

by Mea Arnold

Following the crushing defeat of the Democrats and progressives on Nov. 8, the promise many feminists felt after the 1992 elections has become little more than a dream. And the extensive legislative action plan proposed by NOW -- at a January 1993 rally on the Capitol steps -- is a wish list that could go up in smoke.

 NOW's plan addressed critical needs for women in the areas of reproductive freedom, women's health, civil and constitutional rights, economic issues and violence against women. Several key components of the plan that passed the 103rd Congress are in jeopardy now.

 The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act was a big victory, as it addresses the terrorism women and healthcare professionals face at clinics all across the country.

 A strong, comprehensive and well-funded Violence Against Women Act passed as part of an omnibus crime bill. The law includes a provision allowing women to sue for civil damages if the violent crime against them was motivated by their gender.

 Legislators increased funding for women's health research, particularly breast and cervical cancer research, reauthorized NIH funding with a focus on addressing the lack of women in medical research.

The 103rd Congress expanded federally-funded abortion coverage slightly to include cases involving rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother for federal employees, women in prisons, Medicaid recipients and poor women living in the District of Columbia.

Compromises, Partial Progress

Although the Family and Medical Leave Act passed, only half the workers in the country are even eligible to receive the unpaid leave.

 Reauthorization for Title X, which provides federal funds for family planning programs, made it through the House without restrictions on young women or poor women's rights but died in the Senate.

 The Clinton health care plan came close to meeting NOW's demands for universal health care -- including all women's health needs, a full range of reproductive health services, long-term care and mental health coverage -- but the debate fell apart in the final days of the 103rd Congress.

 While NOW has long-supported passage of a comprehensive lesbian and gay civil rights bill, the 103rd Congress instead introduced a watered-down version that only covers employment discrimination for employers of 15 or more people and includes a broad religious exemption.

 Statehood for the District of Columbia is also still a dream, although the House did bring the issue to the floor for a vote and the Senate held hearings.

The 103rd's Lost Causes

The Freedom of Choice Act, once supported by NOW, was compromised to such an extent that NOW not only pulled its support, but convinced Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., to withdraw her support as well.

 None of the welfare reform proposals assured a minimum income for all women and their families, and only a few addressed reforms that would empower, not punish, women and their families.

 There was no movement on The Equal Remedies Act, Women's Economic Equity Act, the Unremunerated Work Act or on child support enforcement proposals. Other unresolved issues: gender and racial balance in government appointments; a constitional amendment to guarantee women's rights; elimination of the combat exclusion for women in the military remain unresolved; and comprehensive plans to reduce unwanted pregnancies amd address the spread of AIDS among women.

The 104th: A Step Back for Women?

The Republicans' "Contract with America" includes a plan to reintroduce the gag rule, which prohibits federally-funded family planning clinics from providing counseling on abortion services. Anti-abortion legislators will also probably try to weaken the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and roll back the limited expansions won for poor women's access to abortion services.

 Republicans have also vowed to reopen the Crime Bill to cut social spending. The $1.6 billion funding designated to implement the Violence Against Women Act, a popular component of the bill, may be in jeopardy.

 Welfare "reform" will most likely be an early target of conservatives in the 104th Congress. The plan proposed by the new Speaker of the House, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R.-Ga., plan, is the most dangerous for women.

 It calls for an absolute two-year limit on government assistance. After two years there would be no job training, education or transitional employment available -- no matter what the unemployment statistics are for the area.

 Gingrich's plan also denies benefits to children born to women already receiving welfare. And a mother loses all benefits unless paternity is established for her children -- whether or not she is cooperating, has good reasons not to name the father or the state has a backlog in processing the paperwork.

 Health care reform, if tackled at all by the 104th Congress, will more than likely be incremental change rather than comprehensive reform.

Many nutritional and other assistance programs may be lumped together and given to the states as a block grant. States would be encouraged to use the money saved by these cuts to build orphanages for children of poor women who cannot support them.

 In a cruel twist, the Republicans also want a $500 per child tax credit for "middle class" families. The message is loud and clear -- only mothers with money are the proper parents; those who are poor don't deserve to keep their children.

Some Republicans have even called for repealing the Family and Medical Leave law and ending the limited voting rights exercised by the District of Columbia's delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. And Gingrich's call for a constitutional amendment on school prayer strains the separation of church and state.

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