Strong Backlash Building in Congress

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

A tidal wave of right-wing legislation is mounting in Congress — most of it aimed at repealing equal opportunity programs for women and people of color, sabotaging women's reproductive rights and restricting the rights of workfare participants.

Attacks on Sex Equity, Affirmative Action

Republican leadership renewed attacks on affirmative action by introducing in June the deceptively-titled Civil Rights Act of 1997 (H.R. 1909/S.950) which would halt 30 years of bipartisan civil rights enforcement for women, people of color and other groups affected by discrimination.

Although the bill asserts that affirmative action programs by the government and educational institutions would be permitted, the core provision of the bill makes it impossible for employers to take any action that could be defined as a "preference" for one group over another.

NOW has lobbied members of Congress decrying the fact that the legislation, if passed, would not allow specific hiring goals and timetables to address even the most extreme cases of discrimination.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., and 121 Republicans introduced a bill to sex segregate military training. This bill would be a step backward and would curtail women's leadership opportunities. The House National Security Committee instead asked for a study of the feasibility of sex-segregated basic training.

Conservative House Republicans also targeted sex equity in vocational education programs that help single parents and displaced homemakers. Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii., tried in vain to maintain FY 97 level funding for these programs which have provided training for women in non-traditional and often higher-paying occupations.

More Losses for Women's Reproductive Rights

The Budget Reconciliation Act, passed in late July, includes a "permanent" Hyde amendment which expands the discriminatory ban on federal funding of abortion services under the Medicaid health program for low income women (except in cases of rape, incest or a life-threatening condition). Another reproductive rights limitation appears in CHILD Health, the new $24 billion program to provide health care coverage for uninsured poor children, prohibiting states from enrolling teenagers in health care plans that offer coverage for abortion services. This restriction could also affect adult women because states may opt to use the children's health funding to cover families.

The House has yet to agree to Senate amendments on the D&X abortion ban bill (the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Act of 1997, H.R. 1122), before sending the bill to the President for his expected veto. The bill is a before- and after-viability prohibition on a medical procedure called "intact D&E" or "D&X." There is no exception for the health of the woman, not even for "grievous injury to a woman's physical health," and it provides stiff criminal penalties for doctors who perform the procedure. Abortion rights supporters in Congress made futile attempts to pass narrow health exceptions. NOW opposed all efforts to limit or ban abortion procedures.

Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition, told The New York Times in March that D&X bans "represent a giant leap forward in the strategic thinking of the pro-life movement" and that their goal is to "undercut the primacy of the woman and make her secondary to the fetus."

Other Congressional actions include:

Restricting Rights of Welfare Workers

A number of harmful proposals were included in the Budget Reconciliation Act, but some, including those that would have undermined minimum wage requirements for welfare recipients in workfare programs, were dropped. However, the employment discrimination prohibition for workfare participants was weakened.

Postponed was a national authorization for states to "privatize" certain government programs for the poor and elderly, like Medicaid, WIC (the food supplement program for children and pregnant women) and food stamps, turning administration over to companies such as Lockheed, EDS and others. Observers expect the idea —which amounts to a huge windfall for corporations who are not accountable to the public — to surface again.

Domestic Violence Wins & Losses

Despite heavy lobbying by NOW and other groups, a provision clarifying the Family Violence Option was dropped, leaving states little incentive to offer temporary waivers from some of the onerous new welfare restrictions for women facing domestic violence. Conferees asked for a study by the Government Accounting Office on whether violence keeps women in poverty.

Regardless of this setback, 28 states have adopted the Family Violence Option; 16 other states address domestic violence needs in their welfare plans but are awaiting the clarification to be assured that they won't be penalized for temporarily waiving work and other requirements for battered women. The remainder of states do not take into account the needs of welfare recipients experiencing domestic violence.

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