Sunday, December 1, 2013

Vermont's Right to Request

In the summer of 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter brought national attention to the inequality of women in the workplace and the possible policy changes that could help women (and men) balance work and domestic responsibilities. These include more flexible work schedules, working from home, and maternity/paternity leave. Over the past few years, workplace policies have become increasingly inflexible, imposing a burden on many parents, especially working mothers. According to National Study of Employers, the percentage of companies allowing employees to take breaks for personal or family responsibilities decreased from 73% in 2005 to 52% in 2012. In addition, the maximum length of leave time for fathers, adoptive parents, and family members caring for the ill has decreased since 2005.

Today, Vermont is the only state to have passed a “right to request” amendment, as part of the “Equal Pay” Law, allowing employees to request flexible schedules at least twice per year. According to this amendment, the employer must consider the employee’s request unless it is “inconsistent with business operations.” This could mean that the schedule would impose “a burden on an employer of additional costs,” “an inability to reorganize work among existing staff,” and “a detrimental impact on business quality or business performance,” among other reasons for rejection of the request. Following suit with this state law, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors recently passed a city law requiring San Francisco companies to let employees request flexible schedules.

So what is unique about Vermont? Why is this the only state to have passed such a bill when no similar national policy has ever been considered?

The first factor could be the party demographics of the Vermont General Assembly. As a blue state, it is not surprising to hear that Democrats make up 63% of the House and 67% of the Senate. In addition, 4% of the House and 10% of the Senate belong to the Vermont Progressive Party, which situates in the center-left of the ideological spectrum. But Vermont is not the most liberal of the 50 states: neighboring state Massachusetts has a state legislature with 80% Democrats in the House and 90% Democrats in the Senate. So this is certainly not a simple party affiliation issue.

Furthermore, the roll call vote shows that the party preferences for this bill are somewhat unclear. In the House, the bill passed 115-22, with 12 legislators absent. The party breakdown of this roll call vote in the House might suggest it was a partisan issue, as 21 of the 22 who voted nay are Republican and only one is Democrat. But still, about half of the Republicans in the House supported the liberal bill. And in the Senate, all 29 Senators voted in favor of the bill, regardless of party affiliation.

Cynthia Browning, the only Democrat to vote against the bill seems to be further to the right on the ideological spectrum than other Democrats. Looking at her voting records, she voted against her party on issues such as same-sex marriage and the legalization of medical marijuana.

This roll call suggests that party affiliation is not the sole factor influencing the Vermont General Assembly. Perhaps legislators, both Democrat and Republican, are clustered further to left of the ideological spectrum, enabling the Assembly to introduce and pass more liberal legislation. Vermont’s open primary system supports this theory because open primaries are thought to elect more moderate candidates. Every candidate, either Republican or Democrat, must appeal to the median voter in Vermont in order to win the primaries and earn consideration in the general election. With a median voter situated further to the left of ideological spectrum than the median voter in many other states, Vermont’s open primaries favor liberal candidates over conservative candidates, so Republican candidates must campaign with more moderate platforms, and they cannot vote extremely conservatively, or they will likely lose their seat in the next election.

The liberal demographics of Vermont, combined with an open primary election, enable the state to be uniquely liberal in the state legislature, even though they do not have the largest majority of Democrats in the General Assembly compared to other liberal states. I believe the open primaries lead the members of the General Assembly to situate themselves to the left of the center, and this is what enables liberal legislation, such as the “right to request” law to pass.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

ACA Abortion coverage threatened in Michigan

An article in Mother Jones recently revealed the threat to abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act in Michigan. So far, 23 states have adopted the so-called "Stupak Amendment," named for U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI). The amendment forces women to purchase separate insurance policies that cover abortion. It also allows employers to choose not to offer their employees these separate programs, thereby preventing some women from accessing abortion coverage. It is a clever way of working around one of the ACA's most important provisions for women, and it is especially concerning that the original idea came from a House Democrat. Michigan's Governor, Republican Rick Snyder, has already vetoed a bill that is nearly identical to a bill that is about to come before the Michigan state legislature after being petitioned by an organization called Michigan Right to Life.

That would seem to ease the concerns of pro-choice Michiganders, but a bizarre provision of the state's constitution makes it possible for the bill to become law without ever seeing Governor Snyder's desk. In Michigan, citizens may send a bill to the legislature with only 3% signing a petition in favor of it. After that, only a simple majority in the legislature is necessary for the bill to pass. The Governor's signature is not necessary. With the state legislature controlled by Republicans, this seems to be a done deal. Michigan's constitution effectively makes the veto pivot, the filibuster pivot, and the median voter the same legislator. As Republicans hold the majority in the legislature, it is safe to assume that the median voter is a Republican who will support this bill. Thus, as the article points out, the best case scenario for Michigan Democrats and supporters of a woman's right to choose is that there is no vote on this bill.

Not only does it change our usual thinking about the gridlock interval and pivotal legislators, this provision in Michigan's state constitution also raises some concerns about representation. Under the constitution, a mere 3% of Michigan's population can push through legislation if it lines up with the preferences of the median voter in the state legislature. That is not to say that that is what's happening with the Stupak amendment--perhaps 51% of people in Michigan support the measure. But let's say that proposition X is a radically conservative proposal and the Michigan state legislature is also far more radical than the state's population in general on the particular issue that proposition X addresses. In that instance, 3% of the state could force a radical new law on the other 97% without the Governor's signature as a check on the legislature's power. It would be interesting to explore how this provision made its way into the state's constitution and what its benefits might be, but on its face it seems problematic.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

More Women=Less Gridlock?

There is a belief that if women achieved a majority in Congress- to reflect the majority of women in the population- "they wouldn't find themselves in as much gridlock, with as much conflict and partisan grandstanding as their majority-male colleagues." Supporters of this theory site the "Sisterhood in the Senate" phenomenon where the 20 female Senators (regardless of party affiliation) meet regularly for dinner to promote compromise and cooperation.

Women in the Senate gained much public attention and praise when 6 of the 14 Senators that led the compromise ending the government shutdown in October were women. Similarly, in January, women in the Senate claimed that with more women, the fiscal cliff issue would have been solved more easily.

According to Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the women in the Senate "don't believe in the culture of delay." Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) agrees: "One of the things we do a bit better is listen. It is about getting people in a room with different life experiences who will look at things a little differently because they're moms, because they're daughters who've been taking care of senior moms, because they have a different life experience than a lot of senior guys in the room."

Still, the notion that women lead or act differently in Senate or in Congress is not supported empirically. The pivotal politics theory, for example, places members of Congress on a linear ideological spectrum and identifies key players at the 3/5 required for cloture, the 2/3 required to override a veto, and the median voter required for a simple majority. The gridlock interval is location in between the veto pivot and the filibuster pivot. Of course, this theory depends on politicians acting rationally and acting in accordance with their own political preferences; it does not take into account gender identity.

The only reason why gender could make a measurable difference in the prevalence of gridlock is if one gender acts more rationally than another. Women may claim to be better compromisers, but I do not believe that this extends to women acting irrationally and voting against their own political preferences or the political preferences of their constituents.

Would more women in politics lead to less gridlock? No. Women do bring different perspectives, and they bring attention to more women's issues, but changing the gender demographics in Congress will not decrease gridlock. Only more moderate pivots would lead to less gridlock. This could be possible with rule changes, such as the newly adopted "nuclear option"- where only a simple majority is required for cloture- and with the election of more moderate candidates in the future.

Works Cited:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Republicans Block Obama Nominations

As the Obama administration attempts to fill open positions on federal courts, Republican Senators are doing everything in their power to block the nominations of Obama's three D.C. Circuit Court nominations. Last week, Republicans filibustered a vote for Patricia Millett, and they plan to do the same with Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins. While the Republican effort to block the nominees is generally just viewed as politics- an attempt to curtail "court-packing" by the Obama administration- the tendency of Senators and political analysts to paint nominee Pillard as a radical feminist demonstrate deeper implications of blocking Obama's female nominees (2/3 of the Circuit Court nominations). Obama's attempt to diversify the federal courts are now being resisted by Republicans, and fought heavily. Though all nominees are considered very qualified, it seems that such character "flaws" are being exploited to justify the politics behind Republican actions, as such Senators as Ted Cruz and Chuck Grassley have weighed in on Pillard's "controversial" views on reproductive rights.

Such a lack of support for nominees is unusual at this stage in a Presidency, and mechanisms to block nominees are usually seen during the last few months of a President's final term. Furthermore, the suggestion of court-packing actually misuses the term, which refers to a President's creation of positions on courts to fill spots. President Obama is constitutionally required to fill empty seats (though Republicans are arguing that it is unnecessary to currently fill the seats), and it is generally accepted that Presidents attempt to nominate judges within their own party for powerful positions- the D.C. Circuit Court being amongst the most powerful in the country. The resistance to the nominations may be moreso out of concern for the Circuit Court's power to review federal agency rules and decisions.

However, what is most interesting about the Republicans attempt to block these nominations is the question of rules and procedures that it raises. Some Democrats have suggested invoking the "nuclear option," which would change the Senate rules to strip Republicans of their filibuster power over nominees. This "nuclear option" is considered an arcane Senate rule, but allows the Senate to force votes on nominees with a simple majority for cloture, instead of the usual 60 votes. The majority leader, Harry Reid, could have the power to invoke this option, demonstrating the impact of agenda control by party leaders. Furthermore, if this option is opposed, it would take a majority to vote on opposing the "nuclear option," suggesting that the Democrats (assuming there would be no dissenters) could vote in a simple majority to invoke the nuclear option and proceed on the vote for the nomination.This filibuster reform was almost invoked over the summer, but was changed last minute when compromises were reached instead. Thus, it may be that the threat of this "nuclear option" would be enough to force Republican Senators to allow for a vote on the nominations. It seems, in fact, that this option is used more as a threat then as a legitimate method of ending a filibuster. That it would be used now demonstrates both the partisan divide that is crippling Congress's productivity, and the apparently very strong desire by Republicans to silence female politicians who are seen as more "extreme" or "feminist."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Democratic Members of Congress Battle Back Against Attacks on Abortion

After years of restrictive abortion laws passing Republican state legislatures, Democratic members of Congress have decided to finally battle back. Senators Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Baldwin, Barbara Boxer, and Reps. Judy Chu, Louis Frankel, and Marcia Fudge have introduced the Women's Health Protection Act. The bill would force states to prove that extensive measures at banning abortion under the guide of protecting women's health will actually do what they claim to do: protect women's health. This law would go as far to disallow states from passing TRAP laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers), as many states have passed laws that put such stringent regulations on abortion clinics, they have been forced to close. It would set up the criteria of a direct link between these measures and proven goals of protecting women's health, not just banning abortion. 

This law, though unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House, suggests a powerful idea that Republican states have been loathe to admit; namely, that these restrictive policies do nothing to promote women's health, but instead make it more difficult (and more dangerous) for women to receive legal abortions. The bill is extensive, discussing the burden these laws put on low-income women in particular, and advocates for treating abortion providers as any other medical service provider.  However, the bill would not invalidate state laws but instead set markers for federal courts, allowing more suits to be filed against these bills without the fear of a court's validation of the state statute. 

Though proponents of the bill understand that it has little chance of passing the House, it has provided an opportunity for Democrats to position-take. In a debate that is largely characterized by the action-taking of Republicans and pro-lifers, Democrats could gain significant ground with women fed up with these restrictive measures by demonstrating that they do, in fact, care and want to make a change. Furthermore, in light of the struggles over Obamacare, this could allow Democrats to align themselves with a different part of the Healthcare debate, one that portrays them as active instead of passively accepting the issues of Obamacare. As Blumenthal commented, "As the election approaches, I think the voters are going to want to know where legislators stand on these issues," he demonstrated that this bill, though important, may also be part and parcel of the larger PR strategy of Democrats leading to the upcoming elections. Proposing strong, position-taking measures like this one help garner party unity while signaling legislative action to constituents who may be fed up with Congressional inaction. Again, watching the Republican House defeat this measure may help Democrats to, once again, point to the Republicans as the source for the failures of compromise in Congress. Considering the last time Congress passed a bill on abortion was 1994 (which protected abortion clinics from violence), it will be interesting to watch the progress of the bill, as well as the debate surrounding it.

Works Cited:

Abortion At Stake in Albuquerque

A city-wide vote in Albuquerque could decide the fate of abortions for most of New Mexico. On Tuesday, the city will vote on a measure banning abortions after 20 weeks due to the idea that fetuses can feel pain. Albuquerque would become the first city in America to pass such a restrictive abortion measure. Since the two clinics providing abortions at that stage of pregnancy are located within the city, this city-wide vote could have huge implications for access to abortion by the rest of the state.
Moreover, public opinion seems to be in favor of the provision, as a poll demonstrated that 54% of voters support this abortion ban.

Abortion advocates fear that it would essentially place late term abortions out of reach to many women in the state, who seek such abortions for even extreme cases of fetus abnormalities. They also question the motives behind the fetal pain argument, citing The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists who contend that pain is unlikely to be experienced until the third trimester.

Though it may seem odd that this matter is a city issue instead of a state issue, anti-abortion activists acted strategically, knowing that the Democratic Legislature would be unlikely to pass such a provision. Though the city is decidedly left-leaning, advocates of this policy are depending upon turnout from Republicans and Hispanic voters, who largely support the measure, to pass the ban. However, opponents of the measure are hoping that, despite the polls, the left-leaning city will continue to vote along with leftist ideology, defeating the measure.

This abortion ban provides an example of the many venues through which women's issues are being fought; making abortion a city-wide issue could bring these measures out of Democratically-controlled legislatures and into the hands of more conservative cities with abortion clinics that serve large portions of a state. It is easy to see how this could be a strategy adopted by states all over the country, fighting city to city to rid the country of abortion rights. Of course, with a Democratic legislature, it may be possible that the New Mexico legislature could pass a bill in the near future that overturns these city-specific measures. Furthermore, this issue could be a strategy by Republicans in New Mexico to unite and strengthen the party outside of the legislature, giving them agenda control at smaller, but not insignificant, levels. With such high levels of public support for the measure, the legislature could be perceived as out of touch with constituents if it attempted to fight this issue.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Immigration as a Women's Issue

Speaker Boehner recently made a statement that has dashed the hope of many who want to see immigration reform happen this year. He told reporters that House Republicans "have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill." Despite having committed to making immigration reform a reality, the Speaker has made it clear that he will use his own approach.

This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First of all, Senate Democrats made major concessions to Republicans in their immigration bill in order to garner enough support to pressure the Speaker to take up the Senate bill in the House. It is clear now that those concessions have yielded no benefits. Secondly, I think House Republicans are missing out on a major opportunity to combat accusations that they're the "anti-women" party without dealing with touchier subjects like abortion and birth control.

It's not immediately obvious, but immigration reform has major implications for women. Part of the reform included in the Senate immigration package was a merit-based points system for new immigrants seeking Legal Permanent Resident status. The purpose of this system is to allow high- and low- skilled workers to live and work in the US. But as some Senators (particularly women) pointed out this summer, this system strongly disadvantages women from countries where women do not have access to high-skilled jobs. Currently, most female legal immigrants come via the family immigration system, as wives, siblings, mothers, etc. But as the bill also seeks to move away from family-based immigration, women are at a serious disadvantage.

If Speaker Boehner would agree to pass comprehensive immigration reform and go to conference with the Senate, he would have the opportunity to negotiate for stronger border controls or whatever it is that House Republicans would like to see from immigration reform. If he were willing to make concessions on relatively less controversial issues, like improving female immigrants' access to the merit-based immigration system, House Republicans might be better positioned in conference negotiations. Not to mention the fact that they could champion a women's issue without riling up their base or dividing the party.