National NOW Foundation Times >> Fall 2008  >> Article

Legislative Update: Feminists Look to the Future With Agenda in Hand for Next Congress

By Pat Reuss, Senior Policy Analyst

Lilly Ledbetter, who sued Goodyear Tire for wage discrimination, speaks at an equal pay rally on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress participating include Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Photo by Liz Newbury
Lilly Ledbetter, who sued Goodyear Tire for wage discrimination, speaks at an equal pay rally on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress participating include Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

For the past two years, conservative lawmakers have filibustered bill after bill that would protect our rights and fund human needs. At this writing, the whole government may shut down if George Bush carries out his threat to veto the stopgap spending measure that will continue funding the government through early next year when a new administration takes office.

Women and kids are spectators and innocent victims of this political dance, waiting in the wings while their programs and services are threatened, tabled, under-funded or ignored. With the giant deficit, continued military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq, giant mortgage bailouts so that big investors don't lose their money and people don't lose their homes, and tax giveaways to rich corporations and individuals, there's not much left for human needs or economic justice reforms, programs and services.

Even with this doom and gloom, we refuse to give up. We will continue to work this fall -- and after the election if Congress returns for a "lame duck" session to finish up leftover business -- to promote the important reforms and restorations that have been part of our legislative and policy agenda for the last two years. Whether our bills pass or not, we'll be preparing for the next administration and the next Congress.

Work/Family and Economic Justice issues have been at the top of our action list this year. Two bills promoting equal and fair pay have passed the House but face serious roadblocks in the Senate because of opposition from the conservative business community. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act both address wage discrimination faced by women workers and are long overdue. Women are not only paid less for doing similar work, but many are paid less doing the very same job. If the current Congress doesn't get that, then maybe a new one will.

Other bills include Paid Parental Leave for Federal Workers which would allow almost two million government employees to have four weeks of paid parental leave. The House passed the bill in June and of all the bills before the Senate, this one has the best chance to pass because the chief sponsors are Virginia Senators Jim Webb (D) and John Warner (R). We will likely have to wait for that "better" Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, guaranteeing seven paid sick days for millions of workers who could lose their jobs because they take time off due to illness. Paid sick leave almost pays for itself, saving employers the cost of hiring and training new workers, yet some employers only see the short term imposition. This will be near the top of our list next year as well.

Always at the ready will be efforts to build support for expansion of Family and Medical Leave, extended support for child and dependent care, caregivers benefits and social security credits, and acknowledgement that same-sex partners should have these and other workplace benefits. Another economic justice issue is home foreclosures, where low-income women and people of color have been disproportionately affected by the mismanaged and underhanded secondary mortgage industry. Real solutions may not come soon enough for the millions who have lost their homes.

Aside from demanding that ALL candidates for state and national office pledge their support for Roe v. Wade and women's reproductive rights, NOW has been working on many reproductive health and family planning issues. Despite the outcry from college students around the country and attempts to add this initiative to several "must pass" bills, we continue working to pass the bill restoring affordable birth control.

Likewise, our almost eight-year effort to undo the U.S. de-funding of international family planning programs has not resulted in movement on the United Nations Population Fund Restoration Act. Most frightening of all, we face harsh and cruel regulations from the Bush administration in a last-gasp effort to limit if not prohibit medical and health care providers from providing comprehensive and medically safe reproductive health care to the nation's girls and women. The proposed rule from the Department of Health and Human Services threatens loss of federal funds if providers don't follow the new restrictive definitions and requirements. Advocates are working to prevent this rule from going into effect, and if it does, we will urge the next president to rescind it.

Health care in general is a hot topic-but mostly hot air. The Health Equity and Accountability Act is a House bill designed to address health disparities in access and delivery, paying special attention to low-income and rural families, immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities, but it has failed to capture support beyond the women's and civil rights communities. Speaking of health disparities, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act deserves to pass the House this fall. The Senate has already passed its version of reauthorizing health care for people in Indian country who are eligible for this program, but the House has stalled in the face of partisan and reproductive health politics. This program provides health care to over a million Native women, but the programs are outdated and under-funded, and reauthorization is crucial.

In the wings and on the waiting list in the health care arena is stem cell research, some version of universal health care, and reauthorization of SCHIP, the State Child Health Insurance Program, which would add up to six million more children to this vital health care program. In addition, we will be promoting "true" immigration reform that considers the needs of immigrant women and children and provides a pathway to legal residency and citizenship -- and of course working to end violence against women, domestically and worldwide. NOW and our allies are already preparing for next year when a "better" Congress had better get busy passing these important improvements and reforms.