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National NOW Times >> Fall 2003 >> Article

Conservatives Pick the Pockets of Most Vulnerable in U.S.

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

Members of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign were arrested for setting up a demonstration on the National Mall in front of the Capitol. They were protesting the injustice of Bush's economic policies.
Members of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign were arrested for setting up a demonstration on the National Mall in front of the Capitol. They were protesting the injustice of Bush's economic policies. Photo by Lisa Bennett

2004 Elections Shaping Conservative Congressional Agenda

The looming 2004 presidential election is already shaping the legislative agenda for the remaining months of the 108th Congress. The GOP leadership will be focusing solely on bills that appeal to their right-wing support base and the conservative swing voters—yet labeling them with misleading, family-friendly titles to woo uninformed voters.

Republicans believe gay marriage will be a winning election issue, since public interest has been piqued by the Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas decision finding the act of sodomy protected by the Constitution as a fundamental right of privacy. GOP lawmakers may use this momentum to promote a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Reportedly, the amendment is being drafted and Republican strategists are testing the issue in key electoral states.

Anemic Prescription Drug Benefit

To counter negative fallout from the ailing economy and capture a larger chunk of the senior vote, the GOP leadership is offering up a prescription drug benefit for persons over 65. Both the Senate and House have passed their version of a bill (S.1/H.R.1) and a conference committee is hammering out a consensus between the two different—but both inadequate—renditions.

Essentially, the Republican solution would fund the benefit at $400 billion over 10 years, which would cover only 20 percent of costs. Out of pocket expenditures for seniors' prescriptions over the same period are estimated at $2.8 trillion. Additionally, the legislation would permit employers to drop current coverage for seniors, creating serious costs for millions of over-65 workers. Both bills fail to address the core problem of spiraling prescription costs.

In protest, senior groups have been demonstrating in front of Congressional offices around the country and have been turned back by police, had their written materials confiscated, and some protesters have even been arrested!

Women use more prescription medications than men and, generally, have fewer financial resources to pay for them. Activists are encouraged to let their members of Congress know that women need an adequately funded, guaranteed prescription drug benefit under the Medicare program and that drug costs must be brought under control.

Reproductive Rights Still at Risk

Republicans in Congress are expected to move forward with a number of anti-reproductive rights measures such as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (S.1019/H.R.1997), setting out criminal penalties for persons who kill or injure a fetus during a physical assault on a woman. This bill is clearly designed to elevate the legal rights of the fetus while ignoring the need to enhance protection of pregnant women, who are at increased risk of domestic violence.

Murder is the leading cause of death among pregnant women and one in three women report being physically assaulted during pregnancy. Rep. Zoe Lofren and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (both D-Calif.) will offer a substitute to the bill which correctly focuses on safety of the pregnant woman.

House-Senate conferees will soon finalize an abortion procedures ban (the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, H.R.760/S.3), most likely deleting the Senate-passed resolution in support of Roe v. Wade. This dangerous legislation could apply to virtually any abortion procedure performed after the first trimester, including some of the safest procedures, and will likely face a Constitutional challenge.

The Senate will soon finalize the State Department authorization bill (S. 925) which contains an amendment by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to repeal the global gag rule. The rule prohibits federal funding to foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) even if they use only non-U.S. funds for abortion services, counseling or advocating an abortion rights position. As a result, in many developing countries, this cruel prohibition has forced some family planning clinics to shut their doors while others are barely surviving without U.S. funding assistance. Bush has promised to veto the entire State Department bill if the gag rule repeal provision remains in the final House-Senate version.

Despite ardent efforts by abortion rights supporters in Congress to repeal the ban on abortions for military women and dependents, their efforts were defeated in both houses in late May. Upcoming appropriations bills also continue the ban against federal employees choosing health care plans that offer abortion coverage, as well as the ban on abortions for women in prison.

By five heart-breaking votes, an amendment was defeated that would have reinstated the U.N. family planning funds—$34 million to provide family planning services in developing countries—that Bush canceled last year. Unless reinstated, the loss of those funds could translate into 4,700 maternal deaths, more than 77,000 infant and child deaths and 800,000 abortions.

Welfare Re-Authorization in Limbo

Despite months of discussions, the Senate failed to act on welfare re-authorization before the August recess. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program expires on Sept. 30. Progress is stalled due to a struggle by advocates and Senate Democrats for more child care funding, while the Republicans want more hours of required work for TANF recipients and funding for irresponsible, unproven government marriage promotion and father's rights programs.

Women's rights advocates are hopeful the Senate will make improvements on the unacceptable House welfare bill (H.R. 4), which under-funds programs and reduces opportunities for education and training, or extend the existing program without any additional bad provisions until after the 2004 elections.

Title IX Gets Reprieve – for Now

NOW activists and allies heaved a collective sigh of relief on July 11 when the Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, issued its "clarification" on Title IX. Assistant Secretary Gerald Reynolds' statement indicated that the "Bush administration is firmly committed to building on this legacy and continuing the progress that Title IX has brought toward true equality of opportunity for male and female student athletes in America."

The administration backed off its focused attack on the Title IX regulations—via a biased commission on "Equal Opportunity in Athletics" review—when a huge outcry from both feminist activists and the general public urged them to leave this important protection in place.

That settled, advocates are now vowing to press for stronger enforcement, which has been weak and inconsistent over the 31 years since passage of the 1972 education amendments promoting equal support for women's and girls' academic and athletic programs.

Activists should check up on their local schools and universities by asking for copies of their required annual Title IX reports, inquiring who is the school's Title IX coordinator (each school must have an identified sex equity coordinator) and requesting a copy of the school's non-discrimination statement.

Family Flexibility = Lost Overtime

Aug. 5 marked ten years since the Family and Medical Leave Act was adopted; NOW supporters will recall that Bush's father vetoed the original passage of this legislation and that signing the FMLA was one of the first actions taken by President Bill Clinton. Since then, millions of parents have been able to take unpaid time off from work to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or a sick family member.

This year witnessed a victory for protected family leave when the Supreme Court ruled that state employees could sue their employers if denied family leave under provisions of the FMLA (State of Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs). More progress needs to be made in extending FMLA to employees at smaller companies (the majority of employees are not covered), allowing time off for additional important family needs, and requiring paid family leave, which nearly all developed nations have required for decades.

Unfortunately, business and corporate interests are attempting to increase their profits by supporting an initiative to deceive working parents which proposes that employees receive compensatory time in lieu of overtime pay under the House's bogus Family Time Flexibility Act (H.R.1119) and a similar Senate version (S. 317). Both bills would overturn key provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, allowing employers to require non-supervisory employees to work more than 40 hours a week without having to compensate them financially for that overtime. Instead, employers would be able to replace paid overtime with "comp" time, but the bosses would decide when comp time could betaken. Employers could refuse worker's requests to use earned comp time, making life very hard for workers with children and families. Workers' rights advocates were successful at getting the discussion of this bill tabled earlier this summer, but it is still around.

Additionally, the Department of Labor is readying a rule that would re-classify some eight million white collar employees as managerial or supervisory personnel, making them ineligible for overtime pay regardless of the number of hours worked or their non-supervisory duties. These include nurses, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, cooks, secretaries, computer technicians, designers, paralegals and others who would lose overtime income as a result. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, attached an amendment to the Labor/HHS/Ed appropriations bill to prevent these rules from being enforced, but unless the House agrees, the rule change could well go into effect, eroding the 40-hour work week and undermining overtime pay protections for millions of working families. NOW activists raised objections to the Department of Labor about the rule change and supported the Harkin amendment, but the Administration is determined to carry out this anti-worker agenda.

These anti-overtime pay initiatives, undoubtedly, are payback to the Bush administration's generous corporate donors, transferring millions of dollars from workers' pockets back to employers.

Dismantling Pre-School Education

The Senate will shortly be taking up a bill (H.R. 2210, the deceptively-titled School Readiness Act of 2003) that places in motion a scenario that could ultimately result in the demise of the resoundingly successful Head Start program. Barely passing the House (217-216), H.R. 2210 would remove national standards for this low-income pre-school enrichment program, assign responsibility to states and block grant funding. As Head Start has never been adequately funded in its 38-year history, it seems predictable that fiscally-ailing states will cut back even further on Head Start support.

Sabotaging Child Care Tax Credit

The Democrats waged an effective campaign to embarrass Republicans when the House excluded low-income families from $350 billion in tax reductions for middle- and upper-income families, including an expansion of the child tax credit from $600 to $1,000 per child.

Some 12 million children in 6.5 million poor families (earning between $10,500 and $26,625) were "left behind" when they did not qualify for the expanded tax credit. A nearly unanimous Senate extended the refundable credit to these low income, taxpaying families at a cost of $10 billion. But the House's Republican leadership refused to add this refundable credit without another round of new tax cuts totaling $80 billion. Negotiations in a conference committee are stalled over the difference.

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