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13 December 2018

It's time for Congresswomen to take the lead

By: Alon Ben-Meir
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The election of a record number of women to Congress is significant in that Congresswomen are more likely to focus on socio-economic and gender-based issues that have largely been either ignored or resisted by a predominantly male Congress. The fact that nearly 25% of the House and Senate are now women means their voices can no longer be ignored, as they will have the power to block any legislation that will be inconsistent with their set of beliefs and priorities, within their own party. As such, women legislators can be extraordinarily effective because they were elected largely on the premise they would be focused on socio-economic issues of great concern to their constituents.

Women are more attuned to these issues for several reasons, including social conditioning and culture, where the expectation is on women to be primary caregivers. Additionally, women’s role as part of a marginalized community makes them more empathetic to injustices, as women have a long history of being treated as second-class citizens.

There are numerous significant issues that sadly have not been effectively addressed by either the Democrats or Republicans over the past 10 years, which Congresswomen can now focus on. Although some such legislative initiatives may take place under a Democratically-controlled House, the Republican Senate is unlikely to adopt them. Nevertheless, the mere fact that these issues are debated in the House will engender important public support, which would aid significantly the Democrats in the run-up to the 2020 elections.

Child poverty: Legislation should be introduced by Congresswomen to deal with the growing travesty of 6.5 million children living in extreme poverty throughout the United States. Many of these children go to sleep hungry, live in squalor, and are unable to attend school on a regular basis. It is hard to fathom that this terrible phenomenon exists in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world.

Appropriating the necessary funding to tackle this issue over a period of 3-5 years is critical, not only for the children themselves, but for America as a country. Indeed, the difference between a poor and uneducated child versus a better fed and educated one has serious social and political repercussions that we cannot afford to ignore.

Equal pay for equal work: Congresswomen should introduce legislation to close the gender pay gap in the workplace. There is absolutely no reason why women who perform equal tasks to any man should receive a considerably lower salary or be passed over for promotions solely based on gender.

The statistics in this regard are startling. On the whole, white women earn only 80 cents to every dollar a man makes; African American women earn 61 percent, Native American women earn 58 percent, and Hispanic women earn only 53 percent of what men earn. Similar pay disparities exist between white men and men of color.
This issue should be debated to create public awareness, and legislative guidelines should be provided that promote equality and forge an easier legal path for aggrieved women in this area to rectify the discrimination.

Reproductive rights: Another issue of great concern to women is the absurdity that a predominantly male Congress presumes it has the right to determine what women can or cannot do with their bodies. A woman’s decision to bear children should be her and only her prerogative with no outside interference, other than within the family. Prohibiting, cutting funding, and preventing access to Planned Parenthood must totally be outside the domain of federal legislation.

For the Republicans, preventing women from determining their own reproductive future because they seek the political support of evangelicals and other conservative groups borders insanity. Congresswomen must bring this issue to the fore now, specifically because the current Republican Senate’s disgraceful rejection of any reform in this regard can now be challenged by House Democrats. Congresswomen must fight to ensure that Roe v. Wade is never tampered with.

Minimum wage: Congresswomen should fight to raise the minimum wage. It is simply incomprehensible that since 2009, the federal minimum wage (which was “designed to create a minimum standard of living to protect the health and well-being of employees”) has not been raised from $7.25. The annual sum of this for a full-time employee would roughly be $11-12,000 after taxes, which is below the poverty threshold. To suggest that a family of four, with both parents working, can survive on this amount is unfathomable.

The Republican Party, which passed major tax cuts that provided billions to the rich, pretends that those benefits will trickle down to the poor, who have basically received no benefit whatsoever, and yet those legislators still resist raising the minimum wage. Congresswomen ought to push for legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15, which will allow the poorest to have three meals a day, rather than go to sleep hungry.

Gun control: Congresswomen should push for gun control laws to end the epidemic of mass shootings, homicide, and suicide by firearms, which kill on average 39,000 peopleper year. In the United States, it’s estimated there is in excess of 390 million firearms, more than one for every American. It’s time to wake up to this miserable reality. New Congresswomen, such as Lucy McBath of Georgia’s 6th District, who ran on a gun reform platform, can make this a top priority.

The answer to gun violence is certainly not arming teachers or placing armed guards in every private or public institution. As it is, the current level of security feels like a military camp everywhere one goes. What needs to be done is to make background checks required, support gun buyback programs, restrict private sales of weapons, reinstate the federal assault weapons ban, remove restrictions on suing gun manufacturers, pass campaign finance reform to limit campaign contributions from lobbyists including the NRA, and raise the age to purchase a weapon, to 21 at a minimum, but ideally to 25 years old.

Opioid addiction: Women legislators should introduce legislation to provide states with specific funding to battle the epidemic of opioid addiction, which disproportionately affects women. In 2017, nearly 72,000 Americans died from overdoses, more than any previous year.

Some steps to combat addiction include providing funding for access to treatment, tightening FDA rules on prescription drugs, introducing campaign finance reform limiting contributions from pharmaceutical companies, providing job opportunities and education, and ending the “war on drugs” which accomplished nothing, and created a false aura as if we were actually combating drug crimes.

Prison reform: Another shameful reality is that in the United States, over 2 million people are in prisons and the conditions under which many are held are appalling. Sixty-six percent of all prisoners are non-violent offenders, hundreds of thousands are in prison for misdemeanors, and one in five prisoners are locked up for minor drug offenses.

This prison system costs $182 billion each year. More than 50,000 women are in prison for non-violent offenses; most incarcerated are the mothers of children under 18. Their sentences should be reviewed, and either dramatically reduced or immediately released. Concurrently, programs should be established to provide guidance, job opportunities, education, and transitional housing.

Moreover, juvenile detention centers should be primarily rehabilitative, not punitive, and professional training should be given. The failure of previous administrations to deal with this, of either party, is unforgivable. Women legislators ought to be raising this issue because it has a major impact on family stability, providing a more positive future and beginning the process of healing communities.

None of the above suggests that women legislators should not be involved in defense and foreign policy. But since most Congressmen from both parties have miserably failed to address these critical social issues, Congresswomen must now take the lead and use their newly found power to make a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans.

* Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. - alon@alonben-meir.com

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