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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

Legislative Update: Terrorist Attacks Alter National Agenda, Consume Surplus

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress pushed other matters to the side to focus on emergency initiatives, the worsening economy and efforts to find and punish the perpetrators. What is remarkable about the aftermath is how quickly the country has gone from peace and prosperity to military mobilization, deficit spending and spiraling unemployment. What is reprehensible is the readiness of conservative leaders to exploit the nation's new sense of unity to reward their political benefactors with wholesale corporate tax cuts, tax rebates and bailouts.

NOW President Kim Gandy The $5.6 trillion budget surplus projected by the Congressional Budget Office over the next 10 years has nearly disappeared. The administration announced in late November that there would be budget deficits in 2002 through 2004 — further analysis shows the deficits are due mainly to Bush's huge tax cut package as well as reduced federal revenue collections because of weak economic performance

To pay for the tax cuts, Republican budgeteers want to reduce the federal government's human needs expenditures by cutting such programs as Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition assistance, food stamps, Violence Against Women, housing assistance, child care block grants and many others.

The disappearance of the surplus is also threatening to derail progressive initiatives like fully funding Head Start and child block grants, underwriting the cost of prescription drugs for seniors, solving the Medicare long term funding crisis, shoring up the Social Security trust fund, moving closer to universal health care insurance coverage and many other long-desired social goals.

Adding to the grim news, many states are now in serious fiscal trouble; 21 states report that they will soon be running their budgets in the red.

It's the Economy, Sister

In late October, the House passed (216-214) a shameful economic stimulus package which even conservative economists agree would have little effect in combating a recession. Aptly demonstrating the theme"sacrifice is for suckers," the Republican package contained a $1.4 billion tax rebate for IBM, a $1 billion tax rebate for Ford, $833 million for General Motors, and $671 billion for GE, along with hundreds of millions in rebates for airline and energy companies. This proposed repeal of the alternative minimum tax (retroactive for the last 15 years!) means that hugely profitable corporations would no longer have to pay at least some taxes. Equally outrageous, this legislation would permit corporations to shelter their profits in foreign tax havens. The Republican House package does little to help the more than 700,000 workers displaced by the attacks and the weakened economy. NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives

NOW, other women's organizations, labor unions, and a large coalition of human services, civil rights and religious organizations have come together to protest this wholesale feeding frenzy at the public trough. At a late October coalition news conference, NOW President Kim Gandy, along with heads of the AFL-CIO, Rainbow/PUSH, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and others, objected strenuously to these big business giveaways. They charged that the House Republican economic plan would be ineffective as a stimulus and also fails to help unemployed workers and economically-strapped states.

Gandy and Hugh Price of the National Urban League argued in a joint Washington Post op-ed that Congress must not ignore the plight of hundreds of thousands of jobless workers and urged our leaders to help poor, unemployed women whose benefits under welfare time limits may soon run out.

In a letter to Congress, NOW urged that state Unemployment Insurance programs be expanded to cover temporary and low-wage workers (disproportionately women and people of color), that the five year welfare assistance clock be suspended during an economic downturn, and that emergency cash, food stamps, child care and health coverage be included in the economic stimulus package.

Responding to this outcry, the Senate Democrats' economic stimulus package contained a number of provisions to help displaced workers, including an expansion of Unemployment Insurance and health care coverage — but the leadership did not heed pleas to stop the welfare clock.

On other fronts:

Afghan Women

Pressure from the women's rights community is having an impact on the grim situation of women in Afghanistan. Meeting in Bonn, Germany, various Afghan groups planned the foundation of a new government in their war-torn country, establishing an interim cabinet that includes two women members and a Women's Affairs ministry. Additionally, humanitarian food distribution was stepped up in areas liberated from the repressive Taliban regime.

NOW, the Feminist Majority and other women's groups continued urging Congress and the administration to aid Afghan women and children — especially refugees. The National Council of Women's Organizations, of which NOW is an active member, protested the inhumane treatment of Afghan women by the Taliban as a violation of basic human rights and called for full participation by women in the new Afghanistan government. The call was joined — albeit late in the game — by First Lady Laura Bush and the international diplomatic community.

Reproductive Rights

Reproductive rights advocates were hoping for a win when Sen. Barbara Boxer's, D-Calif., Global Democracy Protection Act — which would repeal the global gag rule — was adopted in committee as part of the Foreign Operations FY '02 appropriations. The global gag rule cuts off U.S. aid to international family planning agencies that use their own, non-U.S. funds to provide abortion information and services. A tentative compromise was reached when Republicans agreed to increase U.S. contributions to international family planning programs in exchange for the Democrats' agreement to drop the repeal of the global gag rule. Congress slashed such funding in 1995 when Republicans took control, and the programs have remained seriously underfunded ever since.

At last report, however, the Republican leadership back-pedaled on this compromise after Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., an opponent of women's reproductive rights, complained about the increased funding for international family planning agencies.

Some good news is that Title X domestic family planning programs received an increase in funding at $254 million, although the final touches remain to be made on the House Senate FY '02 Labor, Health, Human Services and Education appropriations bill. Unfortunately, that bill also contains a provision inserted by Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., asking the National Institutes of Health to research "post-abortion depression and post-abortion psychosis" — a fallacious condition that has failed to gain any sound scientific and medical credence.

The same appropriations measure contains about $30 million for abstinence-unless-married sexuality education programs, even though evidence is mounting that these programs have little impact on young people's sexual activity. The bill also provides $50 million annual expenditure for abstinence education under welfare and another $40 million (House version) under the Maternal and Child Health Block grant; the Senate version would add $60 million for FY' 02 and '03.

Hot reproductive rights issues on the horizon include legislation concerning human cloning, more on stem cell research, and a resolution lauding "crisis pregnancy centers" (where women are provided deceptive and incomplete information about their options) run by religious organizations.

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