'Social Issues' Move Forward In Congress
Washington--As bills to outlaw abortion and to end school busing moved toward legislative action last week, the Senate approved a measure endorsing voluntary prayer in public schools.
Senators voted to retain a provision, attached to a Justice Department appropriation bill, that would prohibit the use of federal funds to "obstruct the implementation of programs of voluntary prayer." The measure had been passed by the House in September.
Action on the other proposals--which make up the so-called "social issues" agenda of legislation promoting greater family choice in education and Christian values for youth--is being pushed by Congressional conservatives and pro-family lobbying groups.
The vote on the prayer issue--whichspokesmen for conservative groups say is a "diluted" version of the bill they favor--represents the closest any of the social-issues measures has come to enactment in this session of Congress. Many of the bills had languished in committees throughout last spring and summer, as Congressional leaders sought to concentrate action on President Reagan's budget and tax-cut measures.
In the Republican-controlled Senate, where most action on the bills is expected to take place, Howard H. Baker of Tennessee, the majority leader, has been trying to delay action on any social-issues bills until all of the federal appropriations bills pass both chambers, sometime late this year or early next year.
Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, and J. Bennett Johnston, Democrat of Louisiana, thwarted the majority leader's wishes by attaching anti-busing riders to the Justice Department authorization bill early last summer. Their moves prompted Lowell P. Weicker, Republican of Connecticut, to launch a three-month filibuster of the bill.
When the filibuster began to slow the budget process, Senator Baker finally put the bill aside on Sept. 16. No further floor action was taken on the social-issues bills until Nov. 2, when Senator Baker permitted three bills introduced by Senator Helms--to allow prayer in the schools, prohibit abortion, and ban busing--to be placed on the calendar without approval by the appropriate committees.
The bills can be called up at any time, although Senator Baker still insists that budgetary matters come first.
The majority leader is now being pressured by lobbyists and conservative Senators to bring the social-issues proposals to the floor for debate. Paul Weyrich, executive director of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, a pro-family group, said recently that "it's evident that we are going to have to grapple with budget cuts and economic issues for several years, not for part of one session. That can no longer be used as an excuse. The time is right to move on these issues."
Following is a roundup of recent action taken on the social-issues bills:
Prayer in schools. The Senate-approved amendment to the funding bill for the Justice Department was originally proposed in the House by Robert S. Walker, Republican of Pennsylvania. John Howard, a Walker aide, said the Congressman has attempted to attach the rider "to just about every [education] appropriation bill since 1977."
The amendment is considered a mild one because it does not address the constitutional issue of school prayer. It would merely prohibit the use of Justice Department funds to challenge school boards that permit prayer in public schools. The Justice Department has had virtually no role in such litigation.
The effect of the measure is further weakened by a second amendment, proposed the day after the first one passed by Senator Weicker, an opponent of school prayer. His proposal, which passed unanimously, states that nothing in the Walker amendment "shall be interpreted as the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]."
Gary L. Jarmin, project director of the Project Prayer Coalition--a consortium of 65 Christian and pro-family groups--called the vote on
the Walker amendment "a victory more in a symbolic sense than in a real meaningful sense of moving to restore prayer. It has given the movement a shot in the arm."
The legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, David E. Landau, said the measure was "an inappropriate approach to the problem. It is an attempt to overrule constitutional law not by constitutional amendment but by legislation."
Mr. Jarmin said his group is supporting a school-prayer bill sponsored by Representative Philip M. Crane, Republican of Illinois. That measure, similar to the bill sponsored by Senator Helms, would remove school-prayer cases from the jurisdiction of all federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Because the House Judiciary subcommittee to which the measure was assigned has refused to act on the bill, Mr. Crane has filed a petition to force the measure to the House floor.
School busing. Of the more than 20 pieces of anti-busing legislation awaiting Congressional action, the bill that would have the most dramatic consequences for school desegregation efforts was scheduled to be reported to the Senate floor by the Judiciary Committee late last week.
Proposed by Senator Orrin G.
Hatch, Republican of Utah, the bill would not only prohibit federal courts from ordering busing to alleviate racial discrimination, but would also permit courts to review existing court orders for busing, allowing federal judges to vacate such orders.
Less Drastic Measure
A less drastic measure, sponsored by Senator John P. East, Republican of North Carolina, was reported to the Judiciary Committee last week by the Subcommittee on the Separation of Powers, of which he is chairman. The full committee has not yet scheduled action on the bill.
In the House, a petition to force an anti-busing bill sponsored by Ronald M. Mottl, Democrat of Ohio, out of a Judiciary subcommittee now has 200 of the 218 signatures necessary to bring the measure to the floor.
Abortion. Numerous anti-abortion bills, both statutes and constitutional amendments, have been the focus of attention. Beginning Oct. 5, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution held a series of hearings on an amendment that would establish a "two-tier" process for regulating abortion. The proposal would allow Congress to set a national standard for abortion, with states permitted to adopt more restrictive rules. Less restrictive state abortion laws would not be permitted, however. The bill--which is sponsored by the subcommittee's chairman, Senator Hatch--received the support last week of Catholic lobbying groups. The National Conference of Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference, whose representatives had been undecided on the Hatch proposal, finally granted the Senator their support.
Three Other Amendments
Three other right-to-life amendments, all of them introduced by Senate Republicans, await action. Jake Garn of Utah and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa have introduced bills that would permit abortions only when a mother's life is in danger. Another, sponsored by Senator Helms, would protect the rights of the unborn from the moment of conception. Such amendments would require ratification by the legislatures of 38 states.
A statute sponsored by Senator Helms and approved by the Subcommittee on the Separation of Powers also would mandate that life begins at conception. It would permit review of state abortion statutes only by the Supreme Court.
In the House, the so-called Hyde amendment, which last year restricted the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, was tightened this year. The current version, attached to an education appropriations bill that passed the House on Oct. 6, would permit Medicaid funds to pay for abortion only to save the life of a mother. That bill is now awaiting action in the Senate.
Vol. 01, Issue 12