Who's Leading Congress?

The Poster Boys of the Christian Coalition and Other Ultra-Conservative Groups

by Loretta A. Kane, Public Relations Director

With the impeachment proceedings behind us, many people are breathing a sigh of relief and looking forward to having Congress get back to work. Now that the dust has begun to settle, NOW is taking a look at who is in charge of Congress and how we can expect feminist issues to fare.

"Women's rights and issues will face unprecedented attacks in the 106th Congress," warns NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy. "From abortion and reproductive rights to Social Security, many of the issues that have the greatest impact on women and our families are being targeted by the right-wing Republicans. We must maximize our grassroots organizing to keep feminist pressure on Congress."

According to Gandy, the new Republican leaders in Congress will be anxious to placate their Christian Coalition base of supporters following their failed attempt to remove Clinton from office.

NOW's concerns about the men in charge of the House and the Senate are not unfounded. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., are darlings of ultra-conservative organizations and champions of a radical, right-wing ideology.

Lott has been closely linked with the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a self-described "Southern traditionist" organization. The CCC is the successor to the notorious White Citizens' Council, which was referred to during the civil rights era as the "uptown Klan."

Lott addressed the group at least twice in the 1990s and is on record praising the group. The CCC even used a quote from Lott in a fund-raising mailer.

People of color are not the only group who should worry about Lott. His much publicized comments comparing homosexuality to kleptomania and alcoholism demonstrated his antipathy to lesbian and gay civil rights.

Of course, where we find racism and homophobia, sexism is never far behind.

"We know that Lott is no friend of women. I think he's a good ol' boy who doesn't want to make room for anyone who is different from him," Gandy said. In fact, Lott scored zero on NOW's analysis of key votes on feminist issues in the 105th Congress.

And if you were glad to see Newt Gingrich leave Congress, you might want to take a closer look at his replacement, who at first glance appears to be an affable former high school wrestling coach. Upon closer inspection, the newly elected Speaker of the House, Hastert, has similar conservative credentials to his predecessor. He opposed all of NOW's priority issues in the last Congress, and he has a long record of opposing legal abortion.

Arch enemy of the ERA and everything feminist, Phyllis Schafly has high praise for Hastert.

"Denny Hastert has a longtime record as a pro-family conservative, and I know that this is a better day for the Republicans in Congress," Schafly said upon Hastert's ascension to speaker. Schafly is not alone.

"Dennis Hastert is a man of true principles and integrity. He is a true conservative. Denny received a 'Friend of the Family' award [from the Christian Coalition], and only 80 members out of the 435 members in the House received that award," said Randy Tate, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition.

"Hastert is a political force to be reckoned with," warns Gandy. "He has distinguished himself as an effective deal-maker. He is credited with the ability to win votes on tough legislative issues. He is expected to shy away from the public rhetoric that Gingrich used but has the proven ability to move his Christian Coalition agenda through Congress."

Perhaps the most frightening thing about Hastert is his close affiliation with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, with whom Hastert shares both offices and staff.

DeLay, a Republican from Texas who owned and operated a pest control business before taking his seat in Congress, is an unwavering conservative who helped author key measures in the Republicans' Contract with America.

For many years, DeLay has led the campaign in Congress to impeach federal judges who have been characterized as "activists" by the extremist religious right. He has also gone so far as to label a Nobel Prize committee as "Swedish environmental extremists" and the Environmental Protection Agency as "the Gestapo."  Like Lott and Hastert, DeLay has a zero rating on NOW's issues.

NOW fears that Hastert is little more than DeLay's puppet in Congress, his role being to put a kinder face on DeLay's extremist agenda.

Many pundits agree with that assessment. "Who's in charge of the House? Certainly not the new Speaker. The shambling, amiable and popular Republican . . . Hastert, has risen from the ranks by hitching his wagon to . . . DeLay," writes columnist Otis Pikes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (Jan. 11, 1999).

The House leadership is rounded out by Dick Armey, R-Texas, who referred to openly gay Representative Barney Frank, D-Mass., as "Barney Fag." Armey also scores a big zero on NOW's evaluation of his voting record in the 105th Congress.

According to Gandy, "Women's issues and the feminist agenda will face attacks at every turn in the 106th Congress. While the impeachment crisis finally is over, we are far from happy days. NOW's members need to be ready to work hard against radical religious extremists who have a stranglehold on the majority party in Congress. We must be ever vigilant just to stay even. And we have to redouble our efforts to move forward on issues like Social Security."

To send a message to the new Speaker of the House go to http://dennyhastert.house.gov .

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