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Achieving a More Perfect Union: An Agenda for the New Congress
Tue, 01/04/2011 - 19:00
Special to the Jewish Week
Nancy Ratzan
Nancy Ratzan

The newly elected leaders in the House of Representatives plan to open the 112th session by reading the Constitution into the record. That's not a bad beginning - this Congress must dedicate itself to addressing fundamental problems in order to keep alive the promise of our constitution's preamble: "to...establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

With a stagnant unemployment rate set against decades of flat growth in incomes for the vast majority of Americans, and with income inequality at its worst since the 1920s, economic problems can seem all-consuming. We face long term deficits at the federal level, while state governments are forced to slash their annual budgets year by year. Our structural problems threaten the quality of our democracy, while our immediate problems threaten our social safety net.

Proactively addressing our economic issues would fulfill only part of our nation's essential promise of liberty and justice. Among the urgent unfinished business that must be addressed are strengthening women's economic and reproductive rights, ending discrimination against LGBT individuals, and reforming immigration laws.

During the last term, Congress has been, in effect, fighting fires by extending unemployment benefits, providing tax cuts, helping states maintain their budgets, and funding new public works projects.

But important social reform and civil rights measures were also enacted, including historic health care reform, the Lilly Ledbetter Act that made it easier for women to prove wage discrimination, the end of the odious "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forced so many gays and lesbians out of the military, hate crimes legislation, student loan reform, improved child nutrition programs, and food safety legislation. The Senate also confirmed two new women justices to the Supreme Court, bringing the number of women on the court to three for the first time.

Yet to come is the DREAM Act, which could not overcome a filibuster in December. That bill would enable young people brought to the US as children to earn a path to citizenship if they complete college or serve in the military. Also pending is comprehensive immigration reform that could bring a humane and just fix to a severely broken system. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help ensure women's equality, and the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would ban job discrimination against LGBT individuals await action.

Abortion rights and even access to contraception continue to be the targets of endless attacks from the extreme right, some of whom now sit in Congress. Millions of women already cannot obtain an abortion (with very narrow exceptions) as part of their federally funded health care or health insurance. The health care reform act will greatly complicate, if not eliminate, the ability of many more millions of women to buy private health insurance that includes abortion coverage. At the same time, affordable family planning programs, comprehensive science-based sex education, access to emergency contraception, and insuring the availability of contraception to younger women are all in jeopardy.

Some would say that prospects are not encouraging for the kind of cooperation that would help achieve the goals that progressive women and men seek. But the public should not tolerate the contentious and even poisonous atmosphere that has prevailed too often during the last two years. Two more years of gridlock will only unleash another round of election upsets with no meaningful progress. A serious effort to address a positive agenda will benefit both ends of the political spectrum. There are majorities for progress across the country. To achieve a more perfect union, we must mobilize them.

Nancy Ratzan is president of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms.


112th Congress, civil rights, DREAM act, federal budget, immigration, Jewish politics, NCJW, womens issues

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Re: "The Paycheck Fairness Act ... would help ensure women's equality...." Not exactly. Nothing has worked to close the gender wage gap — not the 1963 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, not Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, not the 1991 amendments to Title VII, not affirmative action, not diversity, not the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.... Nor would the Paycheck Fairness Act have worked. None of the legislation pushed by pay-equity advocates works because the advocates continue to overlook the implications of this: Despite the 40-year-old demand for women's equal pay, millions of wives still choose to have no pay at all. In fact, according to Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Women," stay-at-home wives, including the childless who represent an estimated 10 percent, constitute a growing niche. "In the past few years,” he says in a CNN August 2008 report at, “many women who are well educated and trained for career tracks have decided instead to stay at home.” (“Census Bureau data show that 5.6 million mothers stayed home with their children in 2005, about 1.2 million more than did so a decade earlier....” at This may or may not reflect a higher percentage of women staying at home than in the previous decade. But if the percentage is higher, perhaps it's because feminists and the media have told women relentlessly for years that female workers are paid less than men in the same jobs, and so why bother working if they're going to be penalized and humiliated for being a woman.) As full-time mothers or homemakers, stay-at-home wives earn zero. How can they afford to do this while in many cases living in luxury? Because they're supported by their husband. If millions of wives can accept no wages and live as well as their husbands, millions of other wives can accept low wages, refuse overtime and promotions, take more unpaid days off, avoid uncomfortable wage-bargaining ( — all of which lower women's average pay. They can do this because they are supported by a husband who must earn more than if he'd remained single — which is how MEN help create the wage gap. (If the roles were reversed so that men raised the children and women raised the income, men would average lower pay than women.) See “A Male Matters Response to the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act” at