Riding the Wave of Change

Women of the 116th Congress, January 2019

The month of August typically means vacation and trips to the beach. For Congress, it means recess — when lawmakers go home — and thus, it’s an ideal time to take stock of the 116th Congress, and the House of Representatives in particular.

It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a sea change in the House. On January 3, 2019, 127 women took the oath of office to serve as members of Congress — 25 percent of the Senate and 23.7 percent of the House of Representatives. The 102 women seated in the House is the largest number in its history. Of those, a record 43 are women of color — 22 black, 12 Latina, 6 Asian, 1 Native American, 1 Pacific Islander, and 1 of Middle Eastern/North African descent. An additional four women of color are nonvoting members — one each from American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

From the beginning, it was a new day in the House: hearings on and passage of two gun safety bills, the direct result of gun sense candidates voted into the House. The Bipartisan Background Checks Act (HR 8) would establish universal background checks on all gun sales and the Enhanced Background Checks Act (HR 1112) would provide additional time to allow a background check to be completed before a firearm sale. Both are the first time the House has acted on gun violence prevention legislation in more than two decades. After two mass shootings in less than 24 hours and three in less than a week, the Senate has yet to act on either measure or any firearm safety measure this Congress.

Another important victory came with House passage of the Equality Act (HR 5), which bars discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in a wide variety of areas, including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, the jury system — and yes, locker rooms. The bill would also expand protections for women in public accommodations and federal funding, two areas not currently covered by existing federal civil rights law. First introduced in 2015, it took this House to pass this landmark bill strengthening federal protections against LGBTQ discrimination.

And let’s not forget the Democracy Restoration Act (HR 196), which would restore the voting rights of felons who have served out their sentences, and passed the House as part of a sweeping democracy reform bill, For the People Act (HR 1), on March 8. Along with expanding voting rights, HR 1 — the first bill introduced by the House — would curb partisan gerrymandering (since we now know the Supreme Court won’t do it), and overhaul campaign finance rules (again, no thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling). There’s also the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA, HR 1585), which expired almost one year ago, and was reauthorized in the House on April 4. VAWA would promote safety for Native women on tribal lands, protect those in dating relationships from abusers with firearms, and enhance the overall federal response to dating violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking.

In this Congress we’ve seen the realization of the Dream and Promise Act (HR 6), which passed the House on June 4. The first standalone bill granting a pathway to citizenship to pass a chamber of Congress since 2010, it would affect 2 million immigrants by cancelling removal proceedings against most who entered the US as minors and grant them conditional permanent residence status for 10 years.

The federal minimum wage has lagged far behind the cost of living and hasn’t been raised from the current $7.25 since 2009. Women are close to two-thirds of the workforce in jobs that pay $7.25 per hour or just a few dollars above it. And women are more than two-thirds of tipped workers, for whom the federal minimum cash wage is just $2.13 per hour. Meanwhile, a movement at the state and local level to raise minimum wages to $12 and even $15 an hour is chalking up victories. The Raise the Wage Act (HR 582), which would increase the federal minimum wage for regular employees to $15 an hour over a 7-year period, was a priority in the House and just passed on July 18.

And there’s the resolve to fight the annual reauthorization of the Hyde Amendment that bans federal funding of abortions in most cases, disproportionately harming those struggling to make ends meet, people of color, immigrants, young people, and LGBTQ individuals. While a recent appropriations bill passed by the House once again included Hyde, it did not go unremarked: Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) promised that “this [government spending] package will be the last package to include Hyde.” For the first time since 1976, we can see the writing on the wall for the Hyde Amendment.

This genuine progress is due in large part to the advocacy and leadership of the new female representatives. But the aforementioned legislative advances are by no means the end of the list. They have also ensured introduction of:

The popular press has too often put women in the House in two camps: deal makers and bomb throwers. Rather, these women are change makers. It’s no accident that these widely supported bills are not just seeing the light of day but passing out of the chamber. The new House members were elected to represent their constituencies in Congress, and they’re bringing the issues people across this country care about — health care, wages, violence prevention, civil rights, and economic and reproductive justice. These aren’t — and shouldn’t be thought of — as simply women’s issues. What’s good for women is good for individuals is good for families is good for communities. This historically diverse House of Representatives gets that these issues benefit us all. And, while they’ve been busy introducing and passing historic and impactful legislation that would help individuals and working families, the Senate has yet to act on any of the above measures. In some cases, there isn’t even a companion Senate bill to introduce, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refuses to consider any House-passed bill.

The people spoke in 2018: the new House members are both more representative of this country and focused on the needs and wants of their communities. Just imagine what we could do by riding this wave into 2020 — electing more women, and women of color in particular, to Congress.

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