By Allison Stevens
Thursday, February 17, 2005
Women's rights activists are readying a major offensive to save dozens of federal programs that aid women from the budget ax, the opening salvo in a likely turbulent year marked by battles over Social Security and judicial nominees.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Part of a broad coalition of progressive groups, women's rights activists are hashing out a plan to prevent Congress from adopting cuts to dozens of social programs recommended by the president in his fiscal 2006 budget resolution.
The non-binding legislation, submitted to Congress on
Feb. 7, does not carry the weight of law. But if passed, it would make it easier for Republican leaders in Congress and the White House to cut or eliminate federal funding for social programs during the appropriations process later this year. One provision, if adopted, would change budgetary rules to make it more difficult for lawmakers to increase funding for existing programs.
We will "make sure that absolutely nothing resembling this budget is adopted," said Joan Entmacher, an expert on budget policy at the National Women's Law Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. We will make "sure that people understand how much pain this budget will cause; how unfair it is; that this is not a budget that calls for shared sacrifice."
The resolution calls for increases in spending on defense and homeland security but applies an overall cut of 1 percent to other discretionary spending programs. It also calls for cuts to mandatory spending--the portion of the budget that funds entitlements such as Social Security and Medicaid--to the tune of $137 billion over 10 years.
Among the prospective casualties are a number of programs in the areas of education, which disproportionately affect women because they are more likely than men to live in poverty. As a result, women tend to rely more heavily on government assistance for training to develop skills to move into higher-paying jobs.
Dozens more federal programs that directly affect the lives of women, including child care, youth development, housing, domestic violence and family planning, are slated for cuts or freezes under the president's budget blueprint, according to an analysis compiled by Women's Policy, Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C., that tracks legislation that affects women. Other programs, meanwhile--some in politically sensitive areas such as abstinence-only education, marriage promotion and faith-based outreach--are scheduled for budget increases.
Women's groups are particularly exercised over plans to kill education initiatives that grant states funding to bridge the digital divide by enhancing technological literacy; improve literacy rates among low-income families; and provide money for vocational training. A program that assists victims of trafficking would also be eliminated if the president has his way, and funding would be decreased for domestic violence prevention and prosecution programs authorized by the Violence Against Women Act.
Bush also hopes to eliminate the Women's Educational Equity Act, a relatively inexpensive program that helps women and girls achieve equal treatment in school. The administration tried to zero out funding for the program in fiscal 2005, but three female lawmakers--Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York and Loretta Sanchez and Lynn Woolsey of California--took to the House floor last summer to protest the plan. Their strategy worked: The House passed an amendment to one of its appropriations bills that restored $3 million for the program.
"There's a lot the president could be doing to improve the lot of women and children in this country and he has chosen to ignore it," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat: "We're deeply committed to working for American families, especially the women that run those families."
In addition to many of his recommended benefit reductions, women's groups are concerned about a suggested change to congressional rules that would make improving social programs in the future more difficult. Bush hopes to implement a new rule--called PAYGO (for pay-as-you-go)--that would mandate that discretionary increases to existing social programs be offset by an equal level of cuts in other domestic programs. A similar hurdle, however, would not apply to future tax cuts.
In a press conference following the release of his budget proposal, Bush defended his cuts, the steepest of his presidency, as a "common sense approach" to reach his twin fiscal goals of halving the federal deficit by 2009 and extending tax cuts enacted during his first term. At the same time, he said the budget, because it boosts spending on defense and homeland security, will help the country win the war against terrorism and protect itself. "It's a budget that focuses on results," he told reporters. "The taxpayers of America don't want us spending our money into something that's not achieving results."
But critics of the plan blame the recent rounds of tax cuts for the soaring deficits, and say the president's calls to extend the tax breaks enacted in his first term--at a potential cost of more than $1 trillion--will more than offset any deficit reduction that comes from benefit cuts. Cuts to discretionary programs, meanwhile, would have only a negligible effect on the deficit, they say.
That is in large part because the administration's deficit forecasts do not take into account costs to fund the war in Iraq or the administration's plans to overhaul Social Security and the tax code, according to Avis Jones-DeWeever, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. Calling it "shell-game economics," she points to figures that show that 48 percent of the deficit was caused by recent tax cuts and an additional 37 percent arose from increased funding for defense and homeland security. Spending on federal programs, meanwhile, accounts for merely 7 percent of the deficit, with the remaining 8 percent a result of increased spending in other areas, she said.
Determined to protect social programs that aid women, women's rights groups are devising a two-part plan that they hope will stop the budget resolution in its tracks. One part will involve informing the public about budget cuts via press events, media interviews, opinion articles and news releases. Women's groups also plan to develop a field effort to reach out to influential officials across the country and in Washington, D.C., to persuade lawmakers to oppose the president's plans. The campaign, still in its infancy, will peak in the months leading up to April 15, the GOP's targeted deadline to pass the budget.
Women's groups will face a tough constituency in a Congress governed by a Republican Party that saw its numbers grow in the 2004 elections. But Democrats, and even some Republicans, are already beginning to balk at some of the spending cuts. "I'm looking at all of the cuts because I think they're very severe in many categories in the discretionary programs," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine. "It's just troubling in general."
Political observers, meanwhile, maintain that women's activists will find sympathetic ears from many members of Congress. Bush, in fact, tried and failed to cut many of the same programs last year. He wasn't even able to move his fiscal 2005 budget resolution through Congress, thanks to Republican infighting that has not abated. In addition, Republicans may be reluctant to cut programs in advance of the upcoming midterm elections, which have historically hurt members of the president's party.
Republicans "are sort of out on a plank here," said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota. "It's going to be very hard to get most of what they want."
Allison Stevens is Women's eNews' Washington bureau chief.
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