The Death of Senate Bill 987

December 23, 2010

In May of 2009, Illinois Senator Dick Durban introduced bill 987 to the Senate[i].  As bills go, it is relatively small, only ten pages, with an estimated cost of $108 million over the next five years.  While $108 million is nothing to scoff at, the all too common bills in the billion and trillion ranges dwarf it.  From its heft in paper and its cost, the bill is unremarkable.

What makes S-987 special is the contents of its mere ten pages.  The title alone illustrates its importance – “The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010.”  While it is an awkward name, it simply defines what constitutes child marriage, states the United States is against the practice, requires the collecting a reporting on statistics regarding it, and requires the President to develop a policy in dealing with the international problems of child marriage and to discourage it.

Who could be against such a bill?  In fact, it is one of the rare, extremely rare, bills to receive unanimous support in the Senate.  Forty-two senators went so far as to co-sponsor the bill[ii].  Its passage in the house seemed a sure thing.  That is until Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida’s 18th District set her sights on its defeat.  In other words, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is against such a bill.

An article by Josh Rogin in the Cable cites a letter Rep. Ros-Lehtinen circulated to her Republican colleagues urging them to vote against the bill based on cost[iii], something that every representative, not just the Republican ones, should take into consideration.  After all, with our current fiscal mess, can we afford $21.6 million a year, for the next five years, to prevent children married off before they are old enough to decide for themselves?  Every single senator thought so.  Even a majority of representatives agreed we could afford it.  Given that, it is truly remarkable the bill did not pass the House of Representatives.

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi set the stage for defeat when she brought the bill to the House floor under a procedural maneuver known as “suspension of the rules.”  It basically prevents amendments to a particular bill but requires a 2/3 majority to pass.  It is normally used for issues like naming of a post office or federal building.  In the case of S-987, its use proved fatal.

Having lost her argument of cost, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen employed the sure-fire method of whipping up the GOP base, she claimed it will use federal money to pay for abortions; something the bill, prevented by law[iv], cannot do.  To put is another way, she lied.  The net effect of the lie was energizing the Pro-life right-wing of the Republican Party against supporting the bill.  They had enough votes to undermine the 2/3 majority required and effectively killed the bill.

A large portion of the blame for the bill’s defeat belongs to Speaker Pelosi.  Had she not played parliamentary tricks with the bill and allowed normal debate, the most likely outcome would have been the bill becoming law.  While there can be no excuse for Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s lie, we can at least understand she resorted to it having been denied her say in the matter.

That last part is the real point.  We send people to Washington to do our bidding.  When the use of trickery and procedural posturing deny a member their say, a member will use trickery of their own in response.  That is the sad state of affairs in the U.S. Congress.  Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s concerns needed exploration.  Given the number of fiscally conservative senators sponsoring the bill, answering the concerns of representatives should have been easy.  Instead, we now have a representative that is a liar and a leader in the House that bends the rules to deny rightful debate.

Unfortunately, there is little chance things will change when the new leadership takes over.  Given the polarization of the two dominate parties such posturing will only increase, leaving us with a government that is incapable of getting the simplest things done.  Belligerence in politics only produces short-term gains, never lasting results that serve the best interests of a nation.  That is the point that neither Speaker Pelosi or Rep. Ros-Lehtinen seem to understand.

[i] “Text of S.987 as Referred in House: International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010 -… OpenCongress.” OpenCongress – Track Bills, Votes, Senators, and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Web. 23 Dec. 2010. <http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-s987/text>.

[ii] “Bill Summary & Status – 111th Congress (2009 – 2010) – S.987.” THOMAS (Library of Congress). Web. 23 Dec. 2010. <http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:S.987:>.

[iii] Rogin, By Josh. “How Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Killed the Bill to Prevent Forced Child Marriages | The Cable.” The Cable | FOREIGN POLICY. Web. 23 Dec. 2010. <http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/12/17/how_ileana_ros_lehtinen_killed_the_bill_to_prevent_forced_child_marriages>.

[iv] “USAID Health: Family Planning, Policy, Restrictions on Support for Abortions.” U.S. Agency for International Development. Web. 23 Dec. 2010. <http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/global_health/pop/restrictions.html>.


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