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National NOW Times >> Summer 2002 >> Article

Legislative Update

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

Good News for a Change

Feminists celebrated a victory in March when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against the judicial nomination of Charles Pickering, Sr., a longtime opponent to women's rights, abortion rights and other civil rights.

Unfortunately, Pickering, whose nomination NOW had publicly denounced, is just one in a long line of ultra-conservative judges handpicked by the Bush administration. Ann Telnaes Cartoon: 'The Dept of Health and Human Services Broadens Definition of Child to Include Fetuses and Embryos'

Activists learned in early April that judicial nominee D. Brooks Smith violated the judicial code of conduct with his 11-year membership in a gun club that discriminates against women. His unethical and inexplicable decision to remain a member of a club that bans women is particularly troubling in light of a speech Smith gave to the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Federalist Society in 1993, in which he condemned the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and said "domestic violence cannot even be said to fall into a 'class' of activities that have substantial national consequences."

In light of this information, NOW has called upon members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to reconsider Smith's record and vote against his nomination.

NOW continues to keep tabs on Bush's judicial nominees, and keeps activists updated with an online report.

To date, the Bush administration has sent more than 90 nominations to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Senate has already confirmed 42 of them. The Senate Judiciary Committee has held more than 12 hearings on judicial nominees since July 2001, while during the Clinton years the Republican-dominated committee held barely half a dozen hearings per year. These lower-court positions play a vital role in the judicial process because a vast majority of cases never make it to the Supreme Court.

Numerous Anti-Reproductive Rights Measures Move Forward

Congress is returning to its pre-Sept. 11 agenda, and numerous anti-reproductive rights initiatives are moving through committees to floor votes as fast as members can act.

One of these efforts is the so-called Child Custody Protection Act (H.R. 476), more accurately titled the Teen Endangerment Act. This bill would make it a crime for any adult other than a parent to escort a minor across state lines for reproductive health services, in violation of the home state's parental involvement laws. The American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Physicians and many other professional medical associations oppose the bill because it presents a health risk to young women.

Another stealth anti-abortion rights measure is the Born Alive Infant Protection Act (S. 1050), which would define a fetus at any stage of gestation as a "person." Sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the bill has passed in both houses and is part of the Patients' Bill of Rights legislation. NOW and other reproductive rights advocates believe this unnecessary legislation is merely an effort by opponents to ratchet up rhetoric against abortion rights, since newborn infants already have full legal protection under the law.

Earlier in the year, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced the Bush administration's intent to propose regulations for making embryos and fetuses eligible for coverage under the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP). NOW immediately decried the move as a transparent attempt to advance "fetal personhood."

Anyone may comment on the proposed regulations through May 6 by sending a written statement to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Department of Health and Human Services, Attn: CMS-2127-P, P.O. Box 8016, Baltimore, Md., 21244-8016.

NOW and other women's rights advocates argue that the administration should issue waivers to the states to allow prenatal care coverage under CHIP for eligible low-income women. Congress could also pass any one of several bills that would cover parents under CHIP, including the Family Care Act of 2001.

Yet another attack on contraception is the Schoolchildren's Health Protection Act (H.R. 3805), which would deny federal funding to school districts that provide emergency contraception. About 180 school-based health clinics currently offer the "morning-after" pill to students, and reproductive rights advocates believe that emergency contraception is essential to lower the teen pregnancy rates in the U.S.

Summit Focuses on Judicial Nominees, Reproductive Rights

More than 450 feminist activists attended the Women's Equality Summit and Congressional Action Day (WESCAD) on April 8 and 9, where they learned about threats to reproductive rights by an increasingly right-wing federal judiciary and met with members of their Congressional delegation.

WESCAD attendees heard about ways to re-shape welfare policy to help women on welfare become economically self-sufficient. NOW Membership Vice President Terry O'Neill moderated a panel on "Rethinking Welfare and the Social Safety Net," reviewing principles developed by the economic security task force of the National Council of Women's Organizations. The principles are intended as a guide to policymakers as they reauthorize the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, the 1996 act that eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

NOW President Kim Gandy welcomed participants to a Congressional breakfast on Capitol Hill, followed by an address by former Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo. Former NOW president Ellie Smeal, founder of the Feminist Majority, moderated a panel of experts on international women's rights issues. One of the highlights of the event was a panel session on women and the 2002 elections, moderated by political analyst Charlie Cook, with commentators from both the Democratic and Republican parties. NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives introduced leading feminist Betty Friedan who, along with Dr. Dorothy Height, was honored for her long career working for women's rights and civil rights.

Social Security Bill Introduced; Privatization Challenged

A bipartisan bill that would change the Social Security system to benefit widows and divorced spouses will soon be introduced. The Social Security Benefit Enhancements Act for Women of 2002 would provide higher benefits and expand eligibility for elderly and disabled widows and divorced spouses, who are among the poorest of elderly persons. According to Rep. Robert Matsui, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, the bill would:

  • Increase the benefit limit for widows whose spouses retire early, then die before reaching the full retirement age

  • Update eligibility requirements for disabled widows, and

  • Eliminate a needless two-year wait for some divorced spouses to receive benefits.
About 120,000 women would receive increased benefits if this bill becomes law. Analysts say the change would cost about $1 billion in the near term, with a negligible fiscal impact over the long term.

At the same time, Rep. Matsui and the Democratic leadership are challenging House Republican leadership to take their privatization legislation to the floor for an up or down vote. Rep. Matsui has even introduced legislation containing the privatization options that George W. Bush's Social Security Commission recommended, with the promise that he will get them on the House calendar. Those options would dramatically reduce Social Security benefits and require trillions of dollars in general revenues as well as Social Security payroll tax contributions. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, has vowed to get a privatization bill voted out of the House sometime this spring. The course of action on Social Security privatization in the Senate is less clear. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mo., chair of the Senate Finance Committee, reportedly does not favor taking up the issue this year.

House Takes Up Welfare Reauthorization

Hearings on the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program have been underway since the beginning of the 107th Congress. The House Republican leadership has promised to get a bill to a floor vote in April or May. The National Council of Women's Organizations Domestic Priorities Task Force, co-chaired by NOW Membership Vice President Terry O'Neill, prepared a series of principles on welfare reform that seek to ensure that low-income women first receive the training and education they need to sustain economic self-sufficiency. The principles emphasize expanded childcare, housing, health care, transportation and anti-violence services.

NOW and many other women's rights organizations support the TANF Reauthorization Act of 2001, sponsored by Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii. It would reward states for education, training and other services that improve women's chances of self-sufficiency instead of simply mandating that they get a job within a limited period of time.

The Government Relations/Public Policy Team at the National NOW Office compiled this Legislative Update. Call Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director, at 202-628-8669, ext. 101, if you have any questions. To receive free copies of any of the bills mentioned here, call your U.S. Senator or Representative at 202-224-3121 or visit http://thomas.loc.gov.

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