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.

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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.

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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.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

New York's Women's Equality Act

Last year, New York Governor Cuomo used his positive agenda control to push the Women’s Equality Act through New York’s legislative process and receive a final vote. This ten-point bill—which included stronger laws against human trafficking, income inequality, sexual harassment in the workplace, and abortion rights—passed through the Democrat-controlled Assembly, but the Senate used their negative agenda control to separate the ten points into ten separate bills, so that the Senate could choose to vote on them individually. The Senate subsequently passed nine of the ten proposals, but blocked a major abortion rights proposal from reaching the floor “due to lack of support.”

When the legislation returned to the Assembly for a vote, the Democrats in the Assembly then used their own negative agenda control and refused to allow a vote that would lead to just a partial victory. Because the Democrat-controlled Assembly refused to pass only nine of the ten proposals, as opposed to the full ten-point bill, the abortion rights proposal essentially acted as a killer amendment: the full ten-point bill would not pass through the Senate when it included an abortion rights proposal, even though the Senate supported the other nine proposals.

Now, the Women’s Equality Act coalition is restarting for the 2014 year, and they plan on using grassroots campaigns to win the support of constituents who can then apply pressure to their Senators to pass this bill in full. They created a new website, produced a video, and connected with supporters via social media to spread the word about the Women’s Equality Act, in hopes of creating a heightened sense of accountability for Senators to vote in support of their female constituents.

In an interview with the New York Times, spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa stated: “In the end, the public will hold individual legislators accountable if they stand in the way of finally achieving equality for women in New York State.” This suggests that supporters of the Women’s Equality Act believe that legislators could lose their seats if they vote against the bill. But if Senate leaders continue to use their negative agenda control to keep the abortion rights proposal off the floor, voters will have difficulty pinpointing individual legislators to blame for the Women’s Equality Act failing once again. To complicate accountability further, the group responsible for gatekeeping in the Senate is a coalition of both Republicans and independent Democrats, making it difficult to place blame entirely on the Republican Party. Plus, the Democrats are responsible for gatekeeping in the Assembly, which have prohibited the nine other proposals from passing, so both parties are blaming each other.

If this trend of negative agenda control in the Senate continues, accountability will be difficult to enforce, and I believe the Assembly will fold and allow nine of the ten proposals to pass in the 2014 year. This means the Democrat-controlled Assembly will ultimately achieve a partial victory to pass the nine widely supported bills that strengthen laws against human trafficking, income inequality, and sexual harassment in the workplace, while relying on Roe v. Wade to continue to protect reproductive health rights for women in their state.

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Gillibrand vs. the Filibuster

An article in Politico recently outlined the uphill battle that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will face later this month as she pushes to remove the chain of command from the prosecution of military sexual assault cases. The Senator has spent a great deal of time making the public case for such an overhaul, using her position on the Armed Services committee as a platform and helping to publicize the experiences of victims of sexual assault in the military. There have been highly-visible disagreements among Senate Democrats over how best to remedy the issue, and now, according to Politico, Senator Gillibrand's amendment to the Defense Authorization bill must overcome a filibuster in order to be considered.

This article would have benefitted from a stronger explanation of the filibuster and from a little bit of theory. As Krehbiel's argument in Pivotal Politics makes clear, the most important voter in the Senate is the "pivotal" voter, the one who would decide whether or not the amendment will be filibustered. If we think about this as a unidimensional issue and consider only the Senate, with its 53- (or 55-, if you count Independents) person majority it would seem that Gillibrand should be able to garner enough support for her amendment to be added to the Defense Authorization bill. But as the amendment's current whip list includes only 46 Senators, it seems that Gillibrand's proposed reforms are too far left to attract moderate Democrats. Carl Levin (D-MI), who chairs the Armed Services Committee and who will be managing debate on the Defense Authorization bill later this month, has said that Senators will demand threaten a filibuster and force Gillibrand to get 60 votes for her amendment. Taking into account the fact that the amendment has only 46 votes, it seems that the filibuster threat is premature.

Politico described the filibuster threat as a "big hit" to Gillibrand's amendment, but in fact it should not have come as a surprise. This is not a case of gridlock as Krehbiel describes it, "the absence of policy change in spite of the existence of a legislative majority that favors change." While a majority of Senators may favor reforming how the Armed Forces handle sexual assault within their ranks, they clearly remain divided over how to reform those practices. Gillibrand's proposal has long been controversial, even within her own party. It is not surprising, then that the 60th voter in the Senate favors filibustering the amendment. While a 60-vote bar is certainly higher than a 50-vote bar, Politico should have pointed out that this turn of events was probably to be expected.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Should Republicans Care About Descriptive Representation?

An ABC News Fusion Poll recently found that 43% of Americans believe it would be a good thing if more women were elected to Congress, but the discrepancy between Democratic and Republican poll participants is significant. While 60% of Democrats stated it would be a good thing if more women were elected to Congress, just 23% of Republicans agreed, and 75% of Republicans stated it would make no difference to them if more women were elected to Congress. Among Republicans, partisanship was more of a determining factor than gender, as there was almost no difference in the responses of Republican women vs. Republican men. For Republicans, 22% of men responded that electing more women to Congress would be a good thing, and 24% of women responded that electing more women to Congress would be a good thing.

If this poll accurately reflects the opinions of Republican voters, then substantive representation, not descriptive representation, seems to be the most important factor in voting decisions. But if descriptive representation were completely irrelevant, it would not seem worthwhile for Republicans to raise money exclusively for female candidates in order to gain more descriptive representation for women in Congress. Still, PACs such as She-PAC and VIEW PAC have been working toward collecting donations and supporting conservative female candidates. Another Florida-based PAC, Maggie’s List, began raising money for candidates in the 2000 election, mimicking the EMILY’s List model to help female candidates with fiscally conservative political preferences and shifting the Party’s focus away from social issues by not even taking social preferences into account when creating the list. While Maggie’s List is still a relatively new PAC with just $57,000 in donations through June 30- compared to EMILY’s List’s $6.9 million- the PAC intends on growing in publicity and funds in order to make a measurable impact on the next election by helping more fiscally conservative women win office.

Despite the ABC poll’s suggestion that Republicans do not care about more descriptive representation of women in Congress, the gender gap in votes should serve as a sign for the Republican Party to reach out to more women. In the 2012 Presidential election, women were the decisive vote; if only men had voted, Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have won the election. But President Obama won the election with a 10% gender gap: he won 55% of women’s votes and 45% of men’s votes. This may be because the Democratic Party has identified as more substantively representative of women, especially young and unmarried women, as they have prioritized women’s issues such as access to contraception and abortion clinics. The Democratic Party also prefers stricter gun control policies, which tends to be more popular with women than men. This substantive representation complements the higher descriptive representation of Democratic women in Congress; there are currently 75 Democratic women in Congress and 23 Republican women in Congress.

In a New York Times interview, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, stated: “There is no doubt we need to do a better job as a party in reaching out to women, recruiting strong women candidates and sending a more positive message.”

Even if Republican voters do not understand the potential benefits of increased descriptive representation of women, the Republican Party should still care about descriptive representation, and it seems the Party has identified this as an area for improvement. Increasing descriptive representation of women in Congress is the first step towards closing the gender gap, and if PACs such as Maggie’s List continue to shift the Party’s focus away from social issues and more towards fiscal issues, the Republican Party may be able to convince female voters that they align with women on the substantive level as well. This combination of both descriptive and substantive representation will be necessary in in fighting the image of the Republican “War on Women." Only then can the Party earn back the trust of median female voters, who often identify as fiscally conservative but socially liberal.

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