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National NOW Times >> Winter, 2001 >> Article

Legislative Update

by Jan Erickson

Violence Against Women Act Victory
Feminists finally did it! Legislation re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act was signed by President Clinton on Oct. 28, setting funding for VAWA programs at a landmark $3.33 billion over the next five years. Among many new provisions are expanded coverage that includes dating violence; improved services to, and clarification of immigration status for, battered immigrant women; Department of Justice studies on child custody, abuse and parental kidnapping; and authorization of comprehensive research on violence against women. Major funding targets include:

• Legal services for domestic and sexual violence survivors ($40 million per year);
• Reduction of violent crimes against women on campuses ($40 million per year) to fund education, training, survivor services, and campus security improvements;
• Rape prevention and education ($80 million per year), including the design of a national protocol for sexual assault examinations;
• Grants for police, prosecutors and survivor services ($185 million per year), including a 2.5% set-aside for Native Americans;
• National Domestic Violence Hotline ($2 million per year);
• Programs for victims of child abuse ($13.5 million per year) to fund special advocates, judicial personnel training and televised testimony;
• National Stalker and Domestic Violence database ($3 million per year) to better monitor interstate movement of perpetrators;
• State judicial training on domestic violence ($2 million per year), including the handling of domestic violence and child sexual abuse in custody determinations.

Trafficking Victims Protection
This bill sets new penalties for forced labor and sex traffickers, and offers some protections and services to survivors. It is a positive step, but far from perfect. Penalties are steep—including fines, asset forfeiture, and prison sentences of up to 20 years—but survivors must demonstrate in court that they were "coerced" or "deceived" – an almost impossible task and a loophole that traffickers with good lawyers will walk right through.

The legislation also limits visas, asylum, protection and other services to 5,000 people each year (even though more than 50,000 are trafficked into the U.S. annually), but new provisions in VAWA for battered immigrant women may allow additional relief for trafficking survivors. In a related effort, feminist advocates around the world—including NOW—put pressure on the U.S. State Department and Justice Department, and won a strong, broad definition of sex trafficking in the Vienna negotiations for a protocol on transnational organized crime.

Hate Crimes Prevention Act
Advocates came within a hairsbreadth of winning coverage for gender-, sexual orientation- and disability-based hate crimes after passing the measure in both houses. But the Republican leadership directed members to delete the measure in conference. The bill would have loosened limitations on prosecution of hate crimes, including exisiting categories based on race, color, religion or national origin, and permitted federal law enforcement authorities to intervene when local or state agencies are unable or unwilling to enforce hate crimes laws.

Child Support Linked with Fathers' Rights Bill
In a strategic move by so-called fathers' rights supporters to win their bill (the House-passed Fathers Count Act), it was folded into a generally good bill (the Child Support Distribution Act, passed by the House, 405-18) that would allow states to pass through more child support payments to poor families, instead of reimbursing the government for welfare payments. An additional $1 billion a year could be passed through to low-income families; but suspiciously, the pass-through would not begin for five years. The bill would also authorize pilot projects to privatize the child support collection system—a move that NOW and other child support activists oppose.

On the Senate side, the grants for services to non-custodial fathers increased to $255 million and provided for charitable and faith-based organizations to receive them. Grantees would have to promote marriage while offering counseling to upgrade employment skills and promote payment of child support — but the safeguards against family violence are too weak and wholesale promotion of marriage is not a solution to poverty. Religious organizations that receive grants are also free to discriminate and to proselytize. NOW believes that the legislation is intended to provide millions of federal dollars to men's custody groups that help men take away custody or avoid child support obligations. Passage this year remains in doubt.

Bad Bankruptcy Bill
The House approved the so-called Bankruptcy Reform Act but the Senate Republican leadership failed to garner enough votes to close debate. NOW opposes the bill because it will make it more difficult for women owed past-due child support to collect it, and it undermines important safeguards in the current bankruptcy system while doing little to limit predatory practices by credit card companies. Banking and credit card interests have poured an estimated $40 million into lobbying and campaign contributions to pass this bill, although President Clinton has threatened a veto.

An amendment that would have prevented discharge of debts incurred as a result of violence committed at abortion clinics (Randall Terry and Joe Foreman of Operation Rescue, among others, have declared bankruptcy in an effort to avoid paying fines and judgments) passed both Houses but was stripped from the bill in the Conference Committee. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has vowed to schedule a vote after the election.

Ergonomic Standards
Business-friendly Republicans have repeatedly tried to stop full implementation of new ergonomic standards that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) adopted earlier this year. The new standards would require employers to take precautions against repetitive strain injuries and other work-related injuries — there are some 650,000 injuries annually, mostly to women in data entry, assembly line and nursing home jobs. More efforts are expected next year to limit OSHA funding or otherwise thwart implementation.

Minimum Wage
Whether the 106th Congress will raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 an hour over a two-year period is still open to debate. The House has approved an increase several times – but only in bills that were either vetoed or threatened with a veto for other reasons. The Senate has also passed a non-binding resolution supporting the increase, but the provision is currently contained in the bankruptcy bill opposed by most progressive groups. Women, by far, are the majority of minimum wage workers, and even at the $6.15 level the value of the minimum wage has been seriously eroded by inflation and the failure of Congress to enact timely increases.

Women's Health Issues
Good news! President Clinton signed into law H.R. 4386 which gives states the option to provide Medicaid coverage for treatment of cervical and breast cancer. Women and health care advocates should press their states to offer this coverage. Unfortunately, little progress has been made for the Patients' Bill of Rights (Norwood-Dingle, H.R. 2990) that would regulate Health Maintenance Organizations to assure access to health care services and allow patients to sue when plans have unfairly denied treatment. Senate Republicans are determined to block this legislation, which is opposed by many powerful insurance and health care provider organizations.

Reproductive Rights Victory
In one of the few victories in this Congress, last year's gag rule is no more. It had prevented distribution of U.S. family planning funds to any foreign NGO (non-governmental organization) that provides abortion services or engages in abortion-related activities – even using their own private funds. Family planning opponents in Congress forced the administration to accept the gag rule last year when they threatened to withhold long-overdue U.S. dues payments to the United Nations.

White House negotiators beat back an attempt by Republicans to hold developing nations' debt reduction hostage and gained an increase of $40 million in funding for international family planning programs—coming closer to the pre-1995 level before Republicans slashed it by 30 percent. The victory could be fleeting, since the compromise was that no funds can be released until February 2001—at which time the new president could reimpose the gag rule. Title X family planning funds for domestic programs were set at $239 million—far below the need.

The legacy of the Republican-controlled Congresses over the past six years is a tragic one for women’s reproductive health. An inventory of key Congressional votes shows that since 1995, abortion rights supporters have won only 24 out of 132 votes on efforts to restrict access to abortion and family planning services.

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