Legacy of the 105th Congress:  Many Setbacks for Women

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

In the rush to adjournment of the 105th Congress, reproductive rights supporters were able to beat back several anti-choice initiatives; however, the overall record on women's issues for this last session is a sorry one. The record of the last two years is one of consistent efforts by congressional leadership to undercut federal programs that promote equality for women, prohibit discrimination and improve women's economic security. Only the most ardent resistance preserved some key programs and funding levels.

For most of the 105th, the resources of NOW and other feminist organizations were consumed in defensive activities, fighting off one horrendous bill after another. An overview of the closing months of this Congress and its numerous attempts to push back women's rights follows.

Equal Rights and Other Bills Swept Under the Rug

The congressional leadership's opposition to women's equality effectively buried the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate held a hearing on the ERA.

Similarly, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., used his control of the committee agenda to ensure that ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women would never see the light of day. Congress held no hearings on bills promoting pay equity; legislators gave short shrift to a needed expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act; and numerous bills advancing women's health research, child care services and other worthy goals died with the final rap of the Speaker's gavel.

Progressive legislators and advocates managed to fight back a number of regressive bills proposed by Republican leaders. These included:  a limitation on non-profit activities (that would have greatly constricted the activities of organizations like NOW); a bill limiting consumers' ability to sue for defective or dangerous products; and a repeal of affirmative action and disadvantaged business programs.

Good News for Schools, Students

Congress re-authorized the Higher Education Act (S. 1882), without ending affirmative action, and with a number of positive amendments including increases in the maximum Pell Grant awards, creation of a child care grants program to assist low-income students and an annual reporting requirement for colleges to disclose information about their athletic programs.

Other good news included a presidential veto of legislation authorizing the use of federal funds for single-sex, private and religious schools.
Another positive note is that the Campus Violence and Student Safety portions of VAWA II were attached to the Higher Education Act. These provisions address rape and dating violence against women on college campuses by requiring schools to promptly report violent crimes against students.  Also required is a national baseline study of the procedures followed by institutions of higher learning upon receiving reports of sexual assault. Other provisions offer $10 million in grants to colleges for anti-violence education and outreach.

While this session produced gains in higher education, other actions by the 105th were not so uplifting. Congress attempted to pass legislation re-organizing the Department of Education in a way that would have bypassed federal requirements prohibiting sex and race discrimination in schools.

Passing Violence Against Women Legislation a Challenge

Perhaps the most serious lapse was the Senate's refusal to consider any other parts of the Violence Against Women Act of 1998 (VAWA II, H.R. 3514/ S. 2110) and related bills. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., attached several important parts of VAWA II, including nearly a billion dollars worth of funding, to the Child Protection and Sexual Predator Punishment Act (H.R. 3494). The House unanimously passed both the Conyers amendment and the child protection bill, but the Senate Judiciary Committee balked at moving either one forward.

In addition, oversight hearings on the effectiveness of ongoing violence-against- women programs were indefinitely postponed. Funding cuts for several key violence programs which had been proposed by congressional budgeteers were withdrawn and funding levels remain about even with last year's amounts.

Advocates thought they might have a win when legislators included provisions restoring protection (which had been lost in a 1996 immigration reform act) for battered immigrant women, along with the VAWA II provisions for older battered women, in the Senate Commerce/Justice/State Appropriations Bill. But these, too, were dropped from the final Omnibus Appropriations Bill in the closing days.

A small, but not insignificant, gain: Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., introduced an amendment to protect the confidentiality of abuse reports by women and children in the military, which Congress did include in the FY99 Defense Appropriations Bill.

The Senate also stalled an expansion of federal hate crimes statutes, despite Sen. Kennedy's determined efforts to negotiate with Judiciary Committee leadership. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, reportedly insisted that the legislation (S. 1529/H.R. 3081) drop prohibitions against sex-based and disability-based hate crimes, leaving only a prohibition against hate crimes relating to sexual-orientation. This, of course, was unacceptable to advocates.

A joint resolution opposing international sex-trafficking (S.C.R. 82/H.C.R. 114) which had already been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not make it to a floor vote. Backed by Sens. Wellstone and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the resolution asks the State Department to investigate and take appropriate action to combat trafficking, and report back to Congress. The resolution aims to bring more attention to specific offender countries-like Thailand and Burma-that do little to enforce laws prohibiting sex-trafficking.

Bankruptcy Reform Threatens Women
Despite extensive lobbying activity by NOW and consumer groups, Congress did not make key improvements to the so-called Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act (S. 1301/H.R. 3150), sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. NOW opposed the bill because women owed past-due child support and alimony would have had to compete with credit card companies to receive scarce dollars from their bankrupt ex-spouses.

Women also comprise a disproportionate share of bankruptcy filers as they are jointly liable for debts incurred during the marriage and their post-divorce incomes are often inadequate. The legislation would have seriously reduced the ability of people in financial difficulties to re-organize their debts, while it enhanced the power of huge banking and credit card companies. A potential veto by Clinton quashed the bill.

The 105th Congress did pass two non-controversial bills that will improve child support collection.  One is the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998 (H.R. 3811) which promotes better collection of child support arrearages from parents who have moved to another state. Reportedly, 10 million children are owed $14.7 billion in unpaid child support in interstate cases. A second bill (H.R. 3130) requires states to standardize and improve computerized data systems to enhance collections.

Livable Wages, Affordable Child Care Still a Dream
The Senate defeated a much-needed increase of the minimum wage, offered as an amendment to the bankruptcy bill.  Sen. Kennedy hoped to raise minimum wage by a total of $1.00 over the next two years, bringing it to $6.15 an hour - an amount still below the $6.27 that the minimum wage would be now had it been increased in relation to the cost of living since 1979. Most full-time minimum wage workers have an annual income well below the poverty line, and a majority of the 12 million minimum-wage earners are women.

It is interesting to note that voters in Washington state passed a ballot initiative raising the minimum wage to $5.70 an hour next year, followed by $6.50 an hour in 2000 and thereafter keyed to inflation.

Bitter debate raged over many months as to whether the Senate would enact a stiff tax on tobacco and, in the end, they passed nothing. The expected billions in revenue from this tax would have funded, among other things, a significant expansion of federally subsidized child care and after-school programs.  As the tax bill failed, child care programs remain woefully underfunded and the lack of affordable care continues.

Full-day child care can cost up to $10,000 and 80 percent of the child care programs in the U.S. have been rated poor to mediocre. Five million children, aged five to 12, are left home alone after school because of lack of available programs.

Families and Health Care Low on 105th's List
Congress did not take up a repeal of the now discredited "family cap," a federal limitation on benefits for children born to women on welfare. The original sponsor of the family cap, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., introduced a bill to drop the cap after New Jersey welfare data suggested that a state family cap might have contributed to higher abortion rates. New Jersey officials, however, have gone out of their way to deny that there is a link.

Though the House passed the Patient Protection Act, a bill (H.R. 4250) claiming to protect HMO patients from arbitrary decisions by insurers or poor quality of care, the Senate filibustered it to death.  The legislation authorized medical savings accounts, a move that would primarily benefit upper-income health care consumers, and it limited malpractice awards to $250,000.

A potentially much more effective bill, the Patients Bill of Rights (H.R. 3605/S. 1890), fell five votes short. This bill would have given women the option of designating their OB-GYN as their primary care provider. It also would have empowered physicians over insurance technicians in making important treatment decisions and provided for an independent appeals process to challenge an HMO decision.

Republican Senators on the Labor, Health and Human Services Committee grilled Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner-nominee Dr. Jane Henney about her views on the FDA's review of mifepristone (RU-486) and then reluctantly approved the nomination.  She will be the first woman to head that important agency.

Health consumers beware - the 105th also passed legislation reducing the FDA's independent review of drugs and gave manufacturers more power to determine safety and efficacy of their own products.
The record of the last two years is one of consistent efforts by congressional leadership to undercut federal programs that promote equality for women, prohibit discrimination and improve women's economic security.
Most full-time minimum wage workers have an annual income well below the poverty line, and a majority of the 12 million minimum wage earners are women.

Return to Winter 1999 newspaper / Return to NOW Home Page / Search NOW site / Catalog / Send mail to NOW / Join NOW