During a recent trip to New York, Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu and Patty Murray lamented one aspect of the U.S. deficit talks that they say may cloud the outcome: No women lawmakers have been at the table.
It’s a concern shared by some female colleagues, who say programs that disproportionately serve women and children are at risk in negotiations over where to cut federal spending. Several of the programs were targeted by Representative Paul Ryan in a budget that passed the U.S. House in April and which he and many other Republicans see as a road map for shrinking the government.
The budget called for reductions in food stamps, two-thirds of whose adult recipients are women; Pell grants, about two-thirds of which go to female college students; Medicaid, about 70 percent of whose beneficiaries are female, and child care. This month, House Republicans voted to cut nutritional aid to low-income pregnant women by about 12 percent.
“You think that we’ve come such a long way,” said Landrieu, 55, of Louisiana, who discussed the issue of women’s lack of a presence in the debt talks with Murray at a June 13 fundraiser in New York. “And then you wake up and realize that, in one of the most serious debates to take place in our country, there’s not a woman in the room.”
While the Ryan budget was rejected by the Democratic-run Senate, it will be an issue in the 2012 elections, with Democrats and women’s groups such as Emily’s List using it to spur fundraising. All but four House Republicans voted for it.
Ryan, 41, a Wisconsin Republican, dismisses the criticism, saying lawmakers must address a national debt that the Congressional Budget Office estimates may eclipse the size of the economy by 2021.
Pelosi’s Gavel Gone
The complaints by Landrieu and other female lawmakers, mostly Democrats, that they have been under-represented in this year’s budget fights come just six months after Nancy Pelosi gave up the House speaker’s gavel that had made her the highest-ranking woman in U.S. government history.
Some lawmakers have begun to act on their concerns.
Days before the House adopted the Ryan budget, Murray, 60, the No. 4 Democrat and only woman with a leadership post in the Senate, helped repel an effort to cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, which primarily provides family planning services to women, as well as abortions, for which it can’t use federal funds. This time, the Washington State lawmaker said she’s “making sure that they know that we’re watching.”
The talks she’s been watching, led by Vice President Joe Biden, collapsed last week, forcing President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to take over. Women were also absent from a separate group of senators known as the Gang of Six that worked on a plan to reduce the long-term deficit.
Won’t Raise Taxes
Republicans are focusing on spending cuts because they are unwilling to raise taxes or slash defense spending and immediately pare retirement benefits. That means they’re relying on domestic programs to produce savings, many of which mainly benefit women.
The House voted on June 16 to scale back a program providing nutritional assistance to 9 million pregnant and postpartum women and their children. Democrats said the plan would cut aid to hundreds of thousands.
The Republican budget also called for reducing Medicaid spending by more than $700 billion over the next decade by converting the program into block grants to the states. Twice as many females as males benefit from the insurance system for low-income Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
‘The Debate Changes’
Medicaid is generally restricted to poor children, pregnant women, parents of dependent children, the disabled and those 65 and older. In 2003, seven of the top 10 hospital services billed to the program were maternity-related, Kaiser says, including cesarean sections, fetal monitoring and labor inductions.
Another $127 billion in savings in the Ryan budget would come from food stamps.
“When women are at the table, the debate changes,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat. “We bring to whatever the discussion is the experiences we’ve had as women, and they’re different than men.”
The House budget would convert Medicare to a voucher program in 2022, when the government would start providing a set amount of funds for purchasing private insurance. Women make up 56 percent of Medicare recipients, and they are more reliant on the program’s system of defined benefits because they have more chronic health conditions and live an average of about five years longer than men, according to the Census Bureau.
‘On Your Own’
Under the Ryan plan, “if there’s a health catastrophe, “you’re on your own,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women. Many women “have no savings, no ability to pay for this.”
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, argues that the government has no choice but to enact steep spending cuts to put its books in order.
“Nothing hurts people living on the safety net more than a debt crisis -- they’re the ones who are going to get hurt first, the worst, and those are the programs that will get cut right away,” he said. “The best thing we can do is get people back to work and prevent a debt crisis,” he added. “Faster economic growth and more prosperity is good for everybody no matter what gender.”
Asked which female lawmakers had a major role in crafting his fiscal blueprint, Ryan pointed to Representative Diane Black of Tennessee as well as to “countless” listening sessions he held with women colleagues.
Black is the committee’s only female Republican member. She’s also one of two Republican women on the Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for drawing up legislation implementing entitlement changes. Seven women Democrats serve on the House Budget Committee.
“None of the women in our caucus are shy about letting leadership know how we feel about any issue, debt-limit negotiations included,” said Black, one of nine women elected last year as part of a class of 87 Republican freshmen. “Our budget aims to strengthen the social safety net and provide the greatest assistance to those who need it most. Allowing programs to go bankrupt --- which is what happens under the current structure --- is absolutely unacceptable.”
To be sure, Democrats have been reluctant to spell out how they would reduce the deficit with their own budget. Senate Democrats say they’re waiting for the outcome of the deficit negotiations.
Just a Speech
While Obama called in April for cutting $4 trillion over the next dozen years, his administration has provided few details on how it would do that. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said his proposal is too vague to analyze.
“We don’t estimate speeches,” CBO Director Doug Elmendorf told Ryan’s House panel on June 23.
Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona said there is “widespread” consternation among his Republican colleagues that Obama has been allowed to “carp at our proposal without having a proposal of his own.”
And Democratic leaders also appointed only men to the debt talks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chose two lawmakers -- Senators Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Max Baucus of Montana -- to negotiate with Biden. Pelosi named Representatives Christopher Van Hollen of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina.
Reid “feels very strongly that we must protect women’s health programs from Republican extremists who want to decimate them,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for the Nevada Democrat.
It’s not only Pelosi’s loss of power that limits women’s clout in Congress; it’s also their numbers. There are 93 women in Congress, about 17 percent of all members, with 52 Democrats and 24 Republicans in the House.
That’s a decline from the previous Congress, when a record 95 women were elected, and puts the U.S. in 69th place on the list of legislatures worldwide ranked by percentage of women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Geneva-based group that promotes dialogue among lawmaking bodies and tracks the number of women who serve.
Some women’s groups have taken their concerns over the deficit negotiations to the White House.
A group of women’s associations, including NOW, recently demanded a meeting with Obama’s budget and economic advisers, Jack Lew and Gene Sperling, on the lack of female representation in the Biden talks. NOW’s O’Neill said she urged the White House officials to push for cuts in defense spending and impose a financial-transactions tax, to prevent cuts to Medicaid.
“At the very least someone of the stature of Sebelius or Hilda Solis should be at the table negotiating with these people,” O’Neill said she told the officials, referring to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and labor secretary Solis.
Asked their response, she said, “They wrote it down.”
The White House officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
At least one Republican lawmaker agreed that women need a voice in the talks. “We do better when we have some of the women in the Senate involved” on any issue, said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Penny Nance, chief executive of Concerned Women for America, a Republican-leaning coalition that promotes family values, shares that view. “It’s a mistake” to not have women negotiating, she said.
Added Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat: “While we’re working on the macro issues, we bring the macaroni and cheese issues to the fore.”