By Allison Stevens
Thursday, July 11, 2002
A bankruptcy bill would prevent abortion clinic protesters from filing to avoid paying civil damages resulting from illegal protests. But advocates say the bill could also hurt caretaking parents by making child support harder to collect.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Republicans and Democrats are taking steps to overcome a longstanding impasse on a controversial abortion-related provision of a bill that would make it more difficult for debtors to file for bankruptcy. Women's groups, however, are crossing their fingers in the hopes that lawmakers will remain at loggerheads over a measure that they say would be bad news for U.S. women.
The legislation, which passed both chambers of Congress in 2001 by wide margins, would provide that certain bankruptcy filers face tighter restrictions. The new law would apply to those who make more than the median income and can repay 20 percent or more of what they owe, after allowing for living expenses, secured debts, such as car and home loans, and priority payments, such as child support and back taxes, according to the National Retail Federation.
But despite overwhelming support in Congress, the bill has been stalled in conference committee for months on end over a politically charged amendment that would bar anti-abortion activists who illegally block access to abortion providers and family-planning clinics from filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying civil damages.
Democrats, led by New York Sen. Charles Schumer, insist that the language remain in the bill because they say anti-abortion activists have in recent years implemented a strategy to use a loophole in current bankruptcy law to avoid paying fines assessed for threats or perpetration of clinic violence.
Republicans, led by House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois, oppose the amendment because they say it unfairly singles out a narrow class of debtors for punishment. They add that there is no rampant problem of abortion protesters using bankruptcy to escape their debts, leaving no plausible reason to craft a new law to target them.
President Bush has indicated he would sign the bill with or without the contested language.
"We are hopeful that it won't get passed," said Joan Entmacher, vice president and director of family economic security at the National Women's Law Center. According to Entmacher, the bill stalled because of serious problems with the way it is written.
"[The bill is] not about dealing with abuses of the bankruptcy system," Entmacher said. "It's about trying to squeeze people who run into hard times."
Women, she noted, are far more likely than men to run into such hard times. The fastest growing and largest group that routinely files for bankruptcy is single women. They are more vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy and the staggering costs of medical care than are men or married couples, Entmacher said. On average, women earn less than men who file for bankruptcy; they have fewer assets than their male counterparts; and they are more likely to shoulder the burden of caring for dependent children or aging or ill parents. Domestic violence and fraudulent schemes, especially against the elderly, are additional factors that lead women into bankruptcy more often than men or married couples.
As wives and mothers, Entmacher said, women would suffer an additional burden if the bankruptcy bill became law because spouses who are seeking alimony or child support have the same priority as commercial creditors--without the legal staffs to pursue their claims. Current law stipulates that family obligations are among the few debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, but women's groups say the proposed law changes would make child support a lesser priority.
But congressional supporters of the bill contend consumers are increasingly misusing the bankruptcy system to escape debt that they can afford to repay.
Held up by the outstanding abortion-related provision, the bill is within a hair's breadth of passage. But women's groups won't be able to breathe a sigh of relief unless the bill remains stuck in conference committee through the end of this congressional session. That's an unlikely scenario, opponents of the bankruptcy bill say, given that corporate lobbyists are pressuring lawmakers to reach an agreement and pass the bill before the congressional schedule gets bogged down by end-of-the-year appropriations bills and the November midterm elections.
If the bill does die in conference committee, women could be off the hook--at least for the time being. If Democrats retain control of the Senate after this year's elections, they are unlikely to bring up the bill for another vote next year. If the GOP takes control of the Senate, Republican leaders would have to start the process at square one to revive the bill.
Lawmakers, however, are beginning to take steps to ensure the bill gets passed before Congress adjourns this winter.
Select members of the bankruptcy conference committee met in June to hash out the differences over the abortion-related amendment. They came to some rhetorical agreements on what sorts of protest-related debts should be dischargeable. Staffers, however, could not agree on how to articulate the spirit of the accord in legislative language.
"We agreed in principle, but everything is contingent on acceptable language," said Hyde, who would not reveal the terms of the agreement. "The devil is always in the details, but I am encouraged at this point."
The shroud of secrecy surrounding the supposed agreement has left both supporters and opponents of reproductive rights uncertain about the outcome of the bill.
"We don't know what they'll do," said Rev. Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue, a principal organizer of protests at abortion clinics. "But we're going to live out our faith in the streets no matter how hard Chuckie Schumer tries to . . . silence the gospel of Jesus Christ."
But abortion rights groups are confident that the senators who worked hard to pass the abortion-related provision will not back down in committee.
"The outcome is uncertain," said Betsy Cavendish, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League which has lobbied Congress on the issue. "We're just trusting that Schumer will maintain his strong stance that blockaders and clinic violators cannot seek haven in the bankruptcy bill successfully."
Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.
Senate Banking Committee:
National Women's Law Center: