Legislative Advances and Setbacks Keep Advocates Jumping

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director
  • Big Win Supports Women-Owned Businesses
  • Sex Equity in Higher Education
  • Congress Votes Global Gag Rule; Clinton May Veto
  • NOW Auto Insurance Package Sent to Congress
  • Campaign Reform Bill Takes Aim at Non-Profits

  • Big Win Supports Women-Owned Businesses

    Two stunning votes in Congress have turned back Republican efforts to eliminate the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program that aids businesses owned by women and people of color in the transportation field. The Senate voted 58 to 37 on March 6 to defeat a Republican amendment to replace the DBE program with one for "emerging businesses," as part of the huge federal multi-billion dollar transportation bill. The sizeable margin surprised even our advocates and set the tone for the House vote on April 2 when a similar amendment was refused 194 (including three Democrats) to 225 (including 29 Republicans). Both Republican and Democratic women helped to organize the strong vote in support of DBE.

    This show of support for affirmative action makes it less likely that Congress will pursue broad anti-affirmative action efforts, like the so-called Civil Rights Act of 1997, although the attacks continue on affirmative action in higher education. Opponents are expected to continue pushing state legislation and ballot initiatives.

    If you or someone you know has a good personal story to tell about how affirmative action provided an important boost in your/his/her education or career, please let us know. We need these personal stories as we move forward to defend such programs in various states. Contact Jan Erickson, NOW Government Relations, National NOW Action Center, 1000 16th St, NW, Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20036 or call (202) 331-0066, ext. 768. Our e-mail address is now@now.org and be sure to note attention: Jan Erickson.

    Sex Equity in Higher Education Under Attack

    The 1965 Higher Education Act is being re-authorized and will contain, among others, positive programs to expand campus child care programs and strengthen campus safety measures, as well as setbacks that would undermine sex equity requirements. The act is the main vehicle for federal assistance to colleges and universities and funds educational grant and scholarship programs. Some of these additions are part of the proposed Violence Against Women Act of 1998, including the requirement that university officials report and better respond to violence against women on campus. In the House, committee members have thus far refused the campus safety measures and have adopted only part of the campus-based child care programs that were approved by the Senate committee.

    Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., is planning to offer amendments to provide campus sexual assault prevention grants and his Fair Play Act would make information regarding men's and women's athletic programs at institutions of higher education more easily available, including a toll-free information line.

    We also expect an anti-affirmative action bill that would prohibit colleges and universities that participate in any program under the Higher Education Act of 1965 (including scholarships) from "discriminat[ing] against or grant[ing] preferential treatment" to any person or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in connection with admissions. This act would forbid not only affirmative action to advance diversity in education, as approved by the Supreme Court in the Bakke case, but also any plan designed to remedy a documented and proven history of discrimination, which the Supreme Court in numerous cases has approved as constitutionally permissible bases for affirmative action.

    In addition, the bill does not define the term "preferential treatment" and therefore could be interpreted to apply to any kind of outreach and recruitment program, thus disadvantaging many women and people of color hoping to gain higher education. We can defeat it, but only if we are able to generate the kind of strong grassroots effort that saved the Disadvantaged Business Program.

    Congress Votes Global Gag Rule; Clinton May Veto

    After an extended fight, Congress passed the Foreign Affairs Reform Act which includes a severe restriction on international family planning assistance by placing a gag rule on organizations receiving U.S. funds. The new language would write into permanent law the onerous Mexico City policy prohibiting programs from receiving U.S. family planning aid if they perform any abortions or advocate on abortion-related laws or policies. This would prevent family planning programs in other countries—even if using their own (not U.S.) money—from discussing abortion with patients, with colleagues at a conference or even with government policy-makers.

    The House inserted a cruel provision that gave the President an option: he could drop the ban on abortions, but he would also have to agree to a $29 million funding cut for international family planning programs. However, he could not waive the global gag rule.

    NOW and other reproductive rights advocates criticized the provision by pointing out that it imposes serious and undemocratic constraints on other nations and invites a situation where there will be more, not less, need for abortion.

    The White House, which previously vetoed a foreign aid measure with similar language, has threatened another veto, even though parts of the bill contain much desired measures like authorization of payment for United Nations arrearage. Democrats are said to be again furious over the linking of abortion policy with foreign policy matters, and with a 51-49 vote in the Senate, it is unlikely that the President's veto could be overridden.

    NOW Auto Insurance Package Sent to Congress

    NOW's proposal, called the Per-Mile Auto Insurance Option Act, has been distributed to congressmembers, and we are discussing sponsorship with supporters in both houses. The bill, drafted by NOW Insurance Project Director Patrick Butler, addresses the fact that women pay, on average, about twice what men pay per mile driven. The new bill would afford car owners the right to choose between two easily evaluated options: (1) paying for insurance in proportion to vehicle miles actually driven (per-mile insurance); and (2) the current payment method (insurance for a specified time period). The per-mile approach would save drivers -- particularly women, lower income and older persons (who drive fewer miles on average) -- hundreds of dollars per year.

    Campaign Reform Bill Takes Aim at Non-Profits

    Several Republican bills would limit free speech and the ability of non-profit groups to organize and influence the public agenda. The Campaign Reform and Election Integrity Act poses a serious threat to non-profit organizations, but would do little fundamentally to reform the campaign financing system. It would require all non-profit groups to seek consent annually from their members before they can use any funds for "political activity," which includes any effort to shape federal legislation or regulations, as well as public education about those issues.

    Non-profits would be required to send an annual notice indicating how much they intend to spend and then members would "vote" on whether they want their dues or contributions to be used for such activities. The amount of dues money represented by members voting against such activities would then be deducted from the overall amount designated by thenon-profit for political activities. It would be unlawful for the group to exceed that amount.

    The House failed to pass the Campaign Reform bill just prior to spring recess, even though the non-profit anti-advocacy provision had been deleted. But other similar legislative initiatives, at both federal and state levels, are pending. These include the Voter Empowerment Act, introduced in the House, which would require organizations that perform issue advocacy to disclose their funding sources. The Tax Exemption Accountability Act, another House bill, would limit the compensation of officers of non-profits and create a federally-funded clearinghouse offering copies of non-profit tax returns.

    More ominous is the multitude of so-called Paycheck Protection bills and ballot initiatives which have been introduced in 24 states, where severe limitations would be placed on union and non-profit advocacy organizations. These proposals would require those groups to seek members' approval before making political and charitable contributions, among other limitations. One such initiative is California's Prop. 226, which will be voted on June 2.

    To receive copies of bills free of charge, call your U.S. Senator or Representative at (202) 224-3121 or connect to http://thomas.loc.gov. A more detailed Legislative Update is available online at http://www.now.org/issues/legislat/ and anyone may receive it monthly by e-mail by sending the message "subscribe now-action-list" (without the quotation marks) to majordomo@now.org

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