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National NOW Times >> Spring 2004 >> Article

Congress Cuts Tax Revenue and Pushes Regressive Social Agenda

On March 3, NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives spoke at a rally calling for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples and denouncing right-wing efforts to write discrimination into the U.S. Constitution.
On March 3, NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives spoke at a rally calling for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples and denouncing right-wing efforts to write discrimination into the U.S. Constitution. Photo by Lisa Bennett
by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

Congressional action on major bills, including the federal budget for next fiscal year, has slowed to a turtle's pace. Partisan ideological differences on taxes and spending are delaying adoption of the fiscal 2005 budget resolution.

Republicans are attempting to advance their "shrink government" agenda (except for defense spending) by combining deep cuts in a wide array of social programs with even more budget-busting tax cuts. There would be serious reductions in funding for housing, health care, child care, Head Start, veterans' medical care, law enforcement and juvenile justice, and many others. Meanwhile, the federal deficit keeps climbing and with additional burdens posed in the current budget resolution that would add at least another $1.3 trillion, the total deficit is now projected to be in excess of $6 trillion over the next decade.

Playing Welfare Games

Both houses passed a funding extension for welfare programs, now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Act (TANF), through June 30. The extension came after the Senate hit an impasse over funding for "marriage promotion" programs (see below) versus more money for child care. Republican leadership staged a futile effort to get a final vote, producing a 78-20 vote for an amendment offered by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., that would increase funding for child care to $6 billion over five years for both welfare recipients and low-income families under a federal block grant program. Senators, however, knew that the main bill was going nowhere, so adopting the childcare funding amendment was essentially a meaningless vote.

Whether TANF will be re-authorized this year is an open question. Continuation of the existing punitive program is, sadly, better for women than the new, even more regressive legislation that under-funds programs, adds more limits to poor women's education/training opportunities and requires more work hours, but without adding additional work supports such as transportation and child care. Welfare caseloads went up in 27 states (including D.C.) last year, while decreasing in 24 states.

Pushing Marriage for Poor Women

A series of increasingly silly hearings on "protecting marriage" was launched this spring as part of the Republican campaign to press poor women to get married (while denying marriage to same-sex couples). The title of the April 28 hearing was "Healthy Marriage: What is It? Why Shouldn't We Promote It?" and an array of conservative advocates offered up the usual biased data saying that children only flourish in traditional, heterosexual marriages.

TANF re-authorization legislation would allot as much as $1.8 billion over a six-year period (House version) to untested marriage promotion programs, while failing to require states and grantees to ensure protection against domestic violence that is a frequent fact of life for welfare recipients. These programs divert scarce funds from other efforts that help women to become self-sufficient through more education and job training. Marriage promotion schemes also reinforce women's dependence on men and stigmatize single parents and unmarried couples.

Opposing Same-Sex Marriage

It is now apparent that there will not be enough votes in either the Senate or House to pass the proposed constitutional amendment (S.J.Res.30) banning same-sex marriage, despite George W. Bush's vocal support. A two-thirds vote in both houses is required before an amendment can be sent to the states for ratification, and several conservative legislators, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have been outspoken in their opposition to altering the U.S. Constitution for this reason.

But Republican leaders, hoping that opposition to same-sex marriage can be an effective campaign theme for Bush, are regrouping, considering a change in the proposed language, and still seeking votes. Senate Democrats, however, pose a solid block of 47 votes against a constitutional amendment. NOW sent a strong letter to Congress objecting to any initiative that would introduce discrimination into the Constitution and supporting same-sex marriage as a matter of equal treatment.

Restricting Litigation

The Republican agenda continues to prioritize big business interests through a number of bills that restrict lawsuits against them. Several so-called tort reform bills, which would have profoundly affected women's health care interests, have been introduced. In March, a bill to limit suits against OB/GYN doctors for medical malpractice (S. 2061) failed to gain enough support to allow a floor vote. The following month, a similar measure (S. 2207), which would have restricted the rights of patients injured by paramedics and other emergency professionals as well as patients injured during medical emergencies in other settings, was held back by opposition mainly from Democrats.

Neither bill would have helped doctors or trauma centers gain access to affordable malpractice insurance, and studies show that laws restricting litigation have had no effect on soaring premiums—in part because a tiny number of doctors are responsible for a disproportionate number of claims.

Both of these measures were brought to the floor without any hearings or mark-ups and with little prior notice—a tactic right-wing forces have used on many other important bills. We anticipate another attack on individual rights when the Republican leadership brings up legislation, which has already passed the House, that would seriously restrict the right to file class actions (H.R. 1115).

Reducing Overtime Pay

On April 23, the U.S. Department of Labor's final regulations on overtime pay went into effect, slightly modified. In part because of a hue and cry from worker's rights activists, the revised regulations would allow workers earning less than $23,660 per year to continue receiving overtime pay. Less clear is what will happen to the 6.7 million workers who earn more than $23,660. Check for updates and sign up for the NOW News and Action Summary, where we will be following the administration's implementation of these regulations.

Limiting Reproductive Rights

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act was signed into law on April 1, elevating fetal rights in the law, yet providing no additional protection to battered, pregnant women. Conservative senators gave lie to their supposed concern about violence against pregnant women when they rejected a package of anti-violence initiatives offered by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Court arguments against another measure, the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, took place in three federal courts in late March. The ban was signed by Bush during the now-famous photo-op showing him surrounded by a group of white, middle-aged men back-slapping and smirking about their success in limiting women's abortion rights. The new law is being challenged on constitutional grounds because it fails to provide an exception to protect a woman’s health, as required by the Supreme Court in Stenberg v. Carhart.

Addressing Sexual Assault

A hearing was held on Feb. 26 in the Senate Armed Force Subcommittee on Personnel concerning reports of sexual assault in the military, particularly in the war zone of Iraq. A review of Department of Defense policies on sexual assault, as requested by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was expected to be issued at the end of April. For years, NOW has been advocating a zero tolerance approach for sexual assault in the military, but the armed forces have yet to implement and enforce effective programs that protect and support women servicemembers.

Similarly, a congressional hearing was held on March 11 by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee about college student athletic recruitment practices that promised athletes sex with young women. The hearing was triggered by reports of this practice at the University of Colorado and other schools. Another report of a woman football player who had been raped by a team member at the same university prompted an expanded focus to review the pervasive problem of sexual assault on campuses.

NOW activists helped organize a grassroots outcry to such abuses, and the outrage led to wide media coverage and Congressional attention, as well as the addition of a victim advocate to the investigative committee. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has formed a committee to review athlete recruitment programs, and the University of Colorado has established an independent investigative committee to assess allegations and ongoing policies in these and related areas. The NCAA contacted NOW to let us know in advance that there would be a victim rights advocate on their committee.

Victims' Amendment Stalled

A highly flawed Victims' Rights Constitutional Amendment (S.J. Res.1) failed to gain enough support to be brought to a floor vote in the Senate on April 20. NOW and other anti-violence groups did not support the proposed amendment because it provided little, if any, additional relief for victims of crime.

Drug Card Controversy

On May 3, the new senior prescription drug discount card was made available in the midst of controversy about its supposed benefits. Various progressive senior organizations cautioned older persons against getting the cards until they have "window-shopped" extensively to determine the best deal for their particular prescriptions and nearby pharmacies. Discounts are estimated to range between 10 to 25 percent and about seven million seniors are estimated to seek the cards, with most being low-income older persons who are eligible for a $600 credit toward their prescription purchases.

The card is part of a larger change in the government-run Medicare program that would entice seniors to leave the traditional program and move into private, for-profit managed care plans that will be able to raise premiums and reduce benefits in future years. One of the many controversial provisions in the new law is the prohibition against the U.S. government negotiating with drug companies for lower prices. As a result, seniors may end up getting a 10 percent discount on a drug whose price has doubled or tripled.

Targeting Title IX

NOW submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) on April 23 opposing a proposed regulation allowing single-sex public schools and classrooms without any of the current protections against discrimination. NOW's comments argued that sex segregation under such circumstances would result in more, not less, discrimination against girls and young women in educational settings. Such a change would undo the equal education objectives of Title IX, NOW wrote to the DoE.

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