Can the House Democrats Chip Away At Eight Years of GOP Damage?
From repro rights to protections for LGBTQ people—in the face of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history—Dems have their work cut out for them.
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Republicans have used their past eight years while in control of the U.S. House of Representatives to undermine matters of bodily autonomy, tirelessly and strategically attacking reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. They introduced the nation’s first federal total abortion ban and passed yet another bill to end legal abortion at 20 weeks; they tried to hijack government spending, or appropriations, bills with amendments sanctioning discrimination against prospective LGBTQ adoptive and foster parents in the name of “religious freedom” and banning gender-affirming health care for transgender members of the armed services. They did so, and so much more, knowing their efforts would fail in the U.S. Senate, which requires a 60-vote supermajority—for now—to advance controversial measures without a filibuster. You may not agree with Republicans’ policy goals, but they’re proactive about achieving them.
Now that Democrats are running the House, they are in a position to be proactive. They can pass the mirror image of the GOP’s opposition to birth control, abortion, and the very existence of LGBTQ people, all against the backdrop of President Trump and Vice-President Pence’s policy vision of Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale. They can chair hearings and summon administration officials who have attempted to rewrite federal policy by regulatory fiat. They can bring bills to the floor for a vote. Though they still face a GOP-controlled Senate—one that has helped Trump hold the country hostage with the longest government shutdown in history—they can take plenty of affirmative and affirming actions to solidify reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights and their many points of intersection. Will they protect the bodily autonomy of the body politic that elected them to office?
A number of influential House Democrats who have spent years in the minority told DAME that indeed, they will. They described not only a sprint to defeat the worst of the Trump administration’s policies, but also a marathon to advance the best of their own. For decades, for instance, House and Senate Democrats have acquiesced to the Hyde Amendment, an appropriations rider that restricts taxpayer-funded abortion care for many people who otherwise can’t afford to access it. The “compromise” betrayed their values and their constituents. House Democrats are now fighting Hyde like hell—like they always should have—and Senate Democrats could follow suit.
Realistically, the Democrats will not be able to end Hyde and fulfill many of their other policy goals in a divided government; the current government shutdown is proof of that harsh reality. But if Democrats hope to return to full power in Washington, they must craft an agenda on which to run and eventually govern. What they do over the next two years can have an impact, however limited, in the interim and establish the future. House Democrats’ newfound power will manifest in legislative and oversight authority in the new 116th Congress. Here’s an overview of what they have planned on each front.
On the Legislative Front
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) anticipates setting an ambitious agenda for the House Pro-Choice Caucus, which she co-chairs with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA).
“Probably for the first time ever in the history of this country, we will have a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives [that] will be pro-choice,” DeGette said. “That’s going to impact everything that we do.”
A top Pro-Choice Caucus consideration is Lee’s EACH Woman Act, which would codify an end to the Hyde Amendment. The bill would further require Medicaid, Medicare, and other public health insurance programs to cover abortion care.
Hyde used to be the cost of doing business on Capitol Hill, even for Democrats. But that’s no longer the case, thanks in large part to the reproductive justice coalition All* Above All, the National Network of Abortion Funds, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, all of which worked to shift the party away from the so-called compromise. More than two-thirds of House Democrats co-sponsored the EACH Woman Act in the last Congress; now, at least 183 of the House’s 235 Democrats support repealing Hyde, according to a ThinkProgress analysis of new members. (Two anti-abortion Democrats, Illinois’s Dan Lipinski and Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, remain in the House.) Senate Democrats have yet to introduce a Hyde repeal bill; All* Above All Co-Director Destiny Lopez said she’s “cautiously optimistic” for its debut in the Senate in the 116th Congress.
DeGette ticked through more upcoming legislation that would address some of Trump and Pence’s favorite targets: reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. The measures she described would fund embattled Title X family-planning services for people with low incomes; encourage Teen Pregnancy Prevention programs, which are facing an abstinence-only overhaul or outright elimination; and reverse both the administration’s expanded anti-abortion global gag rule on $8.8 billion worth of foreign aid and emboldened conscience protections for health professionals who don’t want to treat LGBTQ patients, prescribe birth control, or provide abortion care.
Democrats will attempt to undo the administration’s damage in both standalone legislation and in riders to bills that already have momentum. According to DeGette, the Pro-Choice Caucus has been working closely with House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) on reproductive health amendments in negotiations over the pending continuing resolution, the stopgap funding measure to restart the government. In the first week alone, House Democrats passed a global gag repeal in their continuing resolution that ultimately met GOP opposition. “And in May, June, July, when we do the appropriations process, you’re going to see a lot of these issues,” she said, name-checking Title X and the global gag rule.
Though House Democrats will drop Hyde and push their own riders in favor of reproductive rights, Senate Republicans will surely demand the opposite. Anti-abortion-rights groups, meanwhile, have been lobbying the White House to veto any government spending bill that doesn’t defund Planned Parenthood, a longstanding conservative goal that they aren’t likely to concede. Neither side will get everything they want, but will the inevitable clashes lead to more government shutdowns?
DeGette said she couldn’t speculate on the possibility of shutdowns occurring over Hyde and presumably, over other amendments to must-pass spending bills. Instead, she spoke to using the appropriations process to normalize reproductive health care, abortion and all. Hyde was always a “bad policy” that hurt people who use Medicaid, she said, but the Affordable Care Act, state-funded Medicaid expansion, and single-payer proposals have raised new questions about what qualifies as federal funds and why they can’t go to abortion if they’re part of the full range of a person’s reproductive health. “That’s a longer education process that we’re going to have, but we’re [embarking] on it right now,” she said.
Hyde further spills into the progressive push for Medicare for All, a single-payer plan to open the nation’s federal insurance program for people age 65 and older to all Americans regardless of their income, job status, or health status. But widening the net of people eligible for taxpayer-funded health care could ensnare them in the same web of restrictions on taxpayer-funded abortion that people with low incomes and many people of color have disproportionately shouldered since Hyde was first enacted in 1976.
In the last Congress, the Senate’s Medicare for All bill included language preempting Hyde and covering abortion care; the House’s version did not. This time around in the House, “it’s on the table for sure,” according to a spokesperson for Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Medicare for All Caucus.
DeGette separately echoed Jayapal’s spokesperson in the need to “have that conversation,” signaling that Democrats increasingly understand repealing Hyde is as much of a progressive priority. Ultimately, DeGette said, “We are not going to codify Hyde. Period, end of story.”
Abortion is just one part of the reproductive health-care spectrum that demands immediate attention. Democrats are also examining pregnancy and birth and how to make both safer. The United States is home to abysmal maternal mortality rates magnified by racial disparities; Black women across all income and education levels are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than white women. In December, Congress passed and Trump signed into law a rare bipartisan bill, introduced by GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (WA), funding state and tribal review committees “tasked with identifying maternal deaths, analyzing the factors that contributed to those deaths and translating the lessons into policy changes,” ProPublica reported.
Now, Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL) intends to shepherd her “complementary” MOMMA Act, which calls for standardized federal data collection and more, into law.
“Data gathering is so important, because we really don’t have a good answer [about] why this is happening,” Kelly said. “And then also, we need to make sure that we have cultural competence, because even though it’s happening to everybody, it’s happening to Black women even more.”
Additional MOMMA Act provisions would expand postpartum benefits under Medicaid—which covers half the country’s births—from 60 days to one year and standardize obstetric emergency protocols. The bill has garnered the support of more than a dozen health-care groups, among them the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the March of Dimes, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the Preeclampsia Foundation, the American College of Nurse Midwives, and the Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
Kelly expressed hope that the MOMMA Act will quickly gain traction in the new Congress. She’s working with Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (IL) on the version slated for reintroduction. And she’ll serve on the House Energy and Committee Committee, which has jurisdiction over her bill.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) has his own similarly ambitious legislative timeline. The vice-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and one of the handful of openly gay representatives on Capitol Hill will attempt to enshrine LGBTQ protections into federal civil rights law—a shield against the Trump administration’s aggressively anti-LGBTQ policies, including the rollback of civil rights protections for transgender students and the recently upheld transgender military ban. Cicilline plans to reintroduce his Equality Act in first few months of 2019 and wants to advance it through the House by the end of the year, according to spokesperson Sarah Trister.
“The American people overwhelmingly support equality for all Americans, and actually, the majority of Americans think it’s already law,” Trister said. “So this is really just bringing the statute in line with what the vast majority of Americans believe should be the law.”
Among non-LGBTQ Americans, 79 percent supported equal rights for their LGBTQ counterparts in 2016 and 2017, according to GLAAD’s annual Accelerating Acceptance report. The supermajority held amid a sudden decline in how comfortable they felt in personal situations involving LGBTQ family members, teachers, and co-workers, among others; GLAAD characterized the decline as “a dangerous repercussion in the tenor of discourse and experience,” exacerbated by the Trump administration over the course of 2017.
According to Trister, the Equality Act also “clarifies the protections that we believe are already in existing civil rights law”—specifically, that protections on the basis of sex already cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Trump’s conservative Supreme Court could soon decide to take up the matter.
One of the previous efforts to advance the Equality Act included a 2007 version that dropped gender identity protections, Katelyn Burns reported last year in an analysis for Rewire.News. Both Cicilline’s spokesperson and Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), who chairs the Transgender Equality Task Force, told DAME that the latest version would explicitly protect transgender people. The language is as specific as it is necessary. At least 128 trans people were the victims of fatal violence since 2013, according to a November 2018 Human Rights Campaign report; at least 110 were trans women of color and 103 were Black trans women.
Kennedy said he hopes that some Republicans might sign on to the Equality Act, though it’s not yet clear if any will defect from their party’s entrenched opposition to LGBTQ rights. Former Florida GOP Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen served on the Congressional LGBT Caucus, but Ros-Lehtinen retired in 2018 and Curbelo lost to a Democrat in the midterm elections.
The Equality Act isn’t the only LGBTQ rights bill at stake in the 116th Congress. Kennedy intends to reintroduce legislation banning federal-level “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses, defined by the National LGBT Bar Association as “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.” Kennedy worked with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) on the version offered in the previous Congress and with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on a separate bill, the Do No Harm Act, to prohibit Republicans’ increasing weaponization of “religious freedom” against civil rights.
“We have, for the past eight years—six years since I’ve been here and then certainly highlighted under the last two years under the Trump administration—[been] operating in a world where government policy is not to protect everybody equally,” Kennedy said. “I think that that is going to be part of the guiding force for a lot of the policy and the legislation you see…to try to make our country more fair, more equitable, and more just.”
On the Oversight Front
House Democrats are set to go beyond legislative efforts, planning to work to hold the Trump administration accountable under oath—and by subpoena, if necessary.
When DeGette assumes leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations panel, she pledged to use her gavel power to schedule reproductive health hearings rooted in facts, not the anti-abortion fiction that the GOP-controlled committee previously enabled with taxpayer money.
“This is going to be the reverse of that where we’re going to do a whole series of hearings around science and women’s health,” DeGette said. Hearings will emphasize the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict access to family planning, as well as limit abortion access and fetal tissue research, all of which she called “issues that have not been explored by the committee from a scientific basis.” Such fact-based scrutiny could take on even greater significance if the U.S. Department of Justice follows through on congressional Republicans’ request to prosecute Planned Parenthood based on junk science and disproved allegations.
House Democrats’ investigations won’t stop there.
Cicilline serves on the House’s Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees; Trister, his spokesperson, expects those committees to hold hearings that summon Trump’s secretary of state and attorney general, respectively, to talk about the impact of their policies on LGBTQ Americans. Judiciary’s jurisdiction extends to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—”there’s a lot of issues related to immigration and detention in immigration for LGBT individuals that we’d like to explore,” Trister said in a nod to their abysmal treatment.
Kennedy, for his part, called out the U.S. Department of Education for undermining transgender student protections, the U.S. Department of Defense’s transgender military ban, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ reliance on “religious freedom” to obliterate civil rights protections.
“My expectation is that without question, there’s a [kind of] demand for answers from this administration about how their policies affect segments of our society that the current administration has and Congress has been very willing to overlook, and we’re not.”
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