Five Lessons as the 114th Congress Gets Started | Commentary

Posted January 19, 2015 at 3:27pm

As the 114th Congress settles in and President Barack Obama finalizes his State of the Union address, the consequences of the midterm elections are becoming real in Washington. New leaders have taken control of every Senate committee and subcommittee and the chamber itself, and the dynamic is changing.

The conventional wisdom is that tough times are ahead for the agenda my organization promotes — advancing family friendly workplace policies; protecting women’s access to quality, affordable health care including abortion services and fighting discrimination in all its forms.

But I believe there is a way, even over the next two years, to advance the policies women and families badly need. Doing so means that all of us dedicated to making progress will need to redouble our efforts to engage the public and drive home the consequences of congressional inaction. It also means all parties have to engage. For this Congress, it would be wise to do so and return the country to the days when women’s health and workplace concerns enjoyed bipartisan support.

In that spirit, I offer five lessons to members of Congress that could improve their prospects while strengthening families, our economy and our country.

Don’t read too much into one election cycle. It’s become cliché when pundits warn that political parties read too much into the results of single elections. But it’s good advice and, in this case, it has particular salience in regard to women. Voters from red and blue states have made clear they will not countenance politicians with extreme anti-women views, whether they are impugning rape victims’ integrity or offering empty assurances about supporting fair pay. There is no mandate to take women backward on any issue, and doing so will hurt the nation’s families and, ultimately, any lawmakers who support such efforts.

Pay attention to November 2014 ballot initiatives. Elections are, at least in part, about candidates’ biographies and personalities, but ballot initiatives measure voters’ views on issues. Last year’s initiatives offer straightforward lessons. In Massachusetts; Oakland, Calif., and Montclair and Trenton, N.J., voters approved measures that will guarantee a million additional workers paid sick days. In fact, voters overwhelmingly passed every paid sick days ballot measure last year and minimum wage increases in five politically diverse states. And though an anti-choice measure was adopted in Tennessee, by 2-to-1 margins voters in Colorado and in deep-red North Dakota rejected “personhood” amendments.

Ask, don’t interpret. Instead of reading tea leaves about the elections, ask voters what they think. The National Partnership and the Rockefeller Family Fund did just that, commissioning a nationwide election night poll of 2014 voters. Eighty-one percent said it’s important for lawmakers to consider new laws that help keep families economically secure such as paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance. Seventy-four percent of independents, 73 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of men, 95 percent of voters under 30, 97 percent of African-Americans and 95 percent of Latinos agreed.

Recognize that women’s issues are family and middle-class issues. You can’t get away with positioning yourself as a populist — or plausibly say you want to strengthen the middle class — if you oppose affordable health care, measures to fight pay and pregnancy discrimination, paid sick days, paid family and medical leave and other legislation that would make working families’ lives better. The aforementioned poll found that 66 percent of voters said they or their families would likely face significant financial hardship if serious illness struck or they had a new child; more than a third (36 percent) said it is very likely.

Don’t try to fool constituents. Women are smart, voters are smart, and families know what is and isn’t in their interests. Time and again, opponents of progress have tried to pull the wool over women’s eyes by disguising as advances measures that would take us backward. We saw it last year on fair pay and in 2013 on overtime wages. It doesn’t work. And at some level, opponents know it. Last year, the National Partnership analyzed the websites of all general election candidates for governor and Congress. No candidate touted opposition to fair and family friendly policies. Just as candidates know those positions are unpopular, lawmakers should know that constituents won’t be fooled by policies that may sound good but will not, in the end, help them.

Women and men across the country are frustrated with workplace policies that are badly out of sync with their needs, and fed up with partisan debates on health care and other issues. This could be a moment of opportunity, with a new Congress and general agreement that too many families are struggling. But we will only seize that opportunity if we learn lessons from the past and all come to the table determined to make real progress.

Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.