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Congressional Briefs: Black lawmakers applaud passage of slavery resolution, higher ed bill

By Staff

Aug. 4, 2008, 10 a.m. - Black lawmakers last week lauded the House of Representatives passage of a nonbinding resolution condemning slavery and the segregation laws that resulted from it.

“The systematic dehumanization of African Americans,” said longtime civil right activist and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, “for hundreds of years was a horrible crime, and the legacy of these atrocities still lingers with us today. For centuries, African Americans were denied—wages, decent housing, food, clothing, and all the basic necessities of life. They were disenfranchised in the Constitution, barred from voting, from gaining an education, and any protection or right a citizen should expect in a civilized society. Our culture was destroyed, our lives were always in jeopardy, and our very humanity was in question. Any nation which perpetrates these kinds of atrocities on any of its citizens should at least apologize for its actions. And an apology is a very important step toward laying down the legacy of this tragedy once and for all.”

California Rep. Barbara Lee, a fellow Democrat, agreed.

“Even today, there remain the badges and vestiges of slavery. African Americans continue to suffer the consequences of the damage they suffered, both tangible and intangible, to human dignity, including the loss of life, the deprivations of liberty, the long-term loss of income, and denial of opportunity," she said. “Just because we can never fully repay the debt owed to those enslaved and to their descendants does not mean that we cannot acknowledge this tragic period in our nation’s history and try to atone for it. That is the least we can do.”

This “represents a milestone in our nation’s efforts to remedy the ills of our past,” said Rep. Carolyn C. Kilpatrick, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I applaud Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and all the co-sponsors of H.Res. 194. We must now continue our efforts to free African Americans from the shackles of inferior education, inadequate health care, and lack of jobs.”

For Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, it was a little more personal.

“As a fifty-seven-year-old Black man and a descendent of slaves, I understand first-hand the devastating imprint that slavery, racism, and segregation has left on the foundation of our country," Cummings said. "It pains me that the effects of such discrimination are still embedded in the fabric of our society—seen in the disparities of education, health care, and employment opportunities.

“In the past year, people of all races, religions, and backgrounds came together to stand out against a series of racial incidents symbolized through the placement of nooses around the country. Despite all of the accomplishments of the African American community—and of our society as a whole—these actions of intolerance are unwelcome reminders that racial tension and discrimination are not the distant memories that we may think they are.

“I am very pleased to join my colleagues today in supporting a formal apology to the African American community for the inexcusable pain and suffering that has come both directly and indirectly from the practice of slavery and other discriminatory policies that were maintained by the U.S. Congress. This is a large step forward in reconciliation for the offenses of generations past, and I applaud Rep. Cohen for standing up and leading the House forward on this journey.”

The language of the resolution, which was passed by voice vote,  is as follows: "Whereas millions of Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and the 13 American colonies from 1619 through 1865; Whereas slavery in America resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in history, as Africans were captured and sold at auction like inanimate objects or animals; Whereas Africans forced into slavery were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage; Whereas enslaved families were torn apart after having been sold separately from one another; Whereas the system of slavery and the visceral racism against persons of African descent upon which it depended became entrenched in the Nation's social fabric; Whereas slavery was not officially abolished until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865 after the end of the Civil War; Whereas after emancipation from 246 years of slavery, African-Americans soon saw the fleeting political, social, and economic gains they made during Reconstruction eviscerated by virulent racism, lynchings, disenfranchisement, Black Codes, and racial segregation laws that imposed a rigid system of officially sanctioned racial segregation in virtually all areas of life; Whereas the system of de jure racial segregation known as `Jim Crow,' which arose in certain parts of the Nation following the Civil War to create separate and unequal societies for whites and African-Americans, was a direct result of the racism against persons of African descent engendered by slavery..."

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The Congressional Black Caucus gives high mark to higher education

Black lawmakers in the House joined a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives last week to approve final legislation that would address the soaring price of college tuition and remove other obstacles that make it harder for qualified students to go to college.

The Senate is expected to approve the legislation, which increases the Pell Grant and gives incentives to schools to keep prices down.

“Education is literally the difference between surviving and thriving for working class Americans. Congress’ adoption today of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act will ensure that access to education is a reality for all,”  said Kilpatrick. The CBC joined an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives to approve final legislation that expands access to college to working families and the disabled, makes textbooks more affordable, and increases college aid to veterans and their families. It will also simplify the federal student aid application process.   

Lee agreed.

“There is no doubt that a lot of students in our communities of color would not be able to afford college without the assistance of financial aid,” Lee said.  “Everyone should have the opportunity to attend our best universities and colleges. Passage of this legislation will help our students reach their goals of attending the college of their choice and getting a quality education.”

“As an individual with a bachelor’s degree will earn nearly $20,000 more per year than a peer without, a college education continues to be the best path to the middle class.  Unfortunately, the cost of tuition continues to rise faster than inflation,” said Georgia Rep. David Scott.  “Our work today will help American students realize their long-term goals by making a college education more affordable.  By passing this bi-partisan legislation, we are also making the financial aid application process more simplified and less intimidating for students who might not otherwise pursue higher education.” 

U.S. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, of New York, called the bill's loan forgiveness program "generous."

"I am particularly pleased to have championed loan forgiveness for all Board of Cooperative Educational Services teachers nationwide, whose contributions are immeasurable, she said.”  

Congresswoman Barbara Lee Calls for Swift Action in Response to Troubling EBCF Study

Lee on last week issued the following statement in response to a study by the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF) that found that the East Bay is leading the region in increased poverty levels, with 24 percent of residents reportedly living under the federal poverty level:

 “I commend the study by the East Bay Community Foundation as it sheds light on the troubling social and economic trends impacting the East Bay residents,” Lee said.  “To have over a half a million East Bay residents struggling to get by on sub-standard wages while living in one of the wealthiest regions and in the wealthiest nation in the world is simply unacceptable.”

Congresswoman Lee, co-founder and co-chair of the Out of Poverty Caucus whose resolution calling cutting poverty in half over the next 10 years was unanimously passed by the House in January, added “The study simply confirms my belief that we must develop a comprehensive strategy to address the growing poverty crisis in the nation. That strategy should include polices that support living wages jobs and pathways out of poverty, including green jobs.  It also must include universal health care, education reform, affordable housing, childcare and re-entry programs which are so vitally needed in our community and so many others across this nation.”

 “We must form broad partnerships – along state, local and federal lines - to address the socio-economic ills plaguing not only communities in the East Bay but struggling communities throughout the nation. We must heighten our focus, commit our resources and expand our efforts in the fight to eradicate poverty and provide opportunities for living wage jobs.”               

Norton Wants Hearings on FBI and Justice Department on Anthrax Investigation Following Suicide of Suspect

Congresswoman Norton (D-DC) last week called for a hearing in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on which she serves, on the FBI investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks following the tragic suicide of a suspect and the recent damage lawsuit settlement with a man falsely accused by the government.  Norton said, “The FBI needs to come forward to explain what happened from start to finish and why it took seven years of investigation only to have this matter come to an abrupt, untimely end.  I particularly want to know whether years of focus on the wrong suspect contributed to the delays that have kept the families and Postal Service employees from reaching the closure they deserve.”

Norton wants to continue the oversight Congress has taken over the original anthrax tragedy that resulted in the death of two postal service employees at the Brentwood station, now named the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center.  The attack caused a lengthy shut-down of the House and Senate floors and parts of the Senate because letters were directed to members of the Senate.

As late as 2006, Norton asked questions at a Postal Service hearing that revealed a lack of ventilation and air conditioning at the huge V Street postal facility in the District. The Postal Service responded by agreeing to hasten the installation of state-of-the-art equipment. Afterwards, Norton inspected the facility, met with union and management, and visited with employees.

“The continuing hearings our Congress has had on postal facilities must be resumed now with the FBI and the Justice Department,” Norton said.  “We have an obligation not to close the case on the public’s right to know.  The only way to assure no repetition of the anthrax tragedy is to discover all we can about how and why it occurred and whether there were shortcomings at the U.S. Army Bioweapons Laboratory in Fort Detrick, where the suspect Bruce E. Ivins was employed, and whether others were involved, and what is being done to avoid a reoccurrence.”

Rep. Clarke Votes to Ensure Equal Pay for Equal Work Legislation Passed by Democratic Congress will Strengthen Equal Pay Act

Clarke (NY-11) backed a comprehensive measure that will help end the discriminatory practice of paying a woman less than a man for performing the same job. The Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1338), approved by a 247 to 178 vote, will strengthen the landmark Equal Pay Act and close the loopholes that have allowed some employers to avoid responsibility for discriminatory pay.

“It is unacceptable that many women still get paid less for performing the same job as a man,” said Clarke. “A woman’s paycheck should be based on performance and merit, not as a result of an employer’s prejudice.”

Although the wage gap between men and women has narrowed since the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, gender-based wage discrimination remains a significant problem for women in the U.S. workforce.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women only make 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In addition, African American women only earn 66 cents on the dollar while Hispanic women earn 55 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.

The Institute of Women’s Policy Research concluded that this wage disparity will cost a woman anywhere from $400,000 to $2 million over her lifetime in lost wages.

The Democratic Congress has taken important steps to stop the practice of discriminatory pay. Last year, the House approved the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, legislation that rectifies a recent Supreme Court decision that has made it harder for workers to pursue pay discrimination claims.

“The Paycheck Fairness Act builds on Congress’ commitment to ensuring that all Americans are paid equally and fairly for the work that they do,” said Clarke.

Norton Now Fighting Not One but Two Bills that Would Preempt Council and Permanently Deprive D.C. of Gun Safety Jurisdiction

Norton said last week that a second bill, filed as Congress left town, to keep D.C. elected officials from writing their own gun bill - with 47 conservative Democrats and five Republican co-sponsors - was a transparent attempt to get a D.C. gun bill to the floor because the NRA-inspired discharge petition to compel a vote on a prior bill failed to get the 218 signatures necessary to force House consideration.  The discharge petition, to preempt a D.C. Council bill that would comply with the Supreme Court decision overturning D.C. gun laws, has 166 signatures (there are 199 House Republicans), but no Democrats so far, and the petition may be signed only when Congress is in session. By filing their own almost identical bill, written after negotiations with the NRA, these mostly Democratic members hope to relieve election year NRA pressure by getting a Democratic-backed bill to the floor, out of fear that the NRA will run hometown ads against their reelection.  The new Democratic bill is virtually the same as the Republican bill that has 185 Republicans and 64 Democrats. 

Norton called on Dick Heller and other plaintiffs in the law suit, and pro-gun D.C. residents, to speak out against the unprecedented NRA pressure that has now resulted in two anti-home rule preemptive House bills filed before the D.C. Council has finished writing its bill.  “Even residents who believe that D.C. officials will not write the bill they think necessary,” she said, should separate themselves from those who seek to treat residents as second class citizens in an unprecedented effort to preempt the D.C. Council by writing a bill federalizing gun safety laws and barring the District from ever changing their own gun laws.  Preemptive overriding is especially unnecessary, Norton said, not only because the Council intends to make changes, but also because District gun laws continue to be under the jurisdiction of the federal courts and, in any case, Congress can change any D.C. law at will.

The Congresswoman, who has had meetings with the House Democratic leadership and other Democratic leaders, is in the midst of developing her own strategy to meet the NRA attack head-on in the House.  In case the bill clears the House, she already has been in touch with Senators, who helped her stop several House-passed anti-home rule gun bills in the past.  However, Norton said, the discharge petition device, unique to the House, must be fought hard, especially because of its implications for further use against the city.  If this bill were to get to the Senate floor - which is possible because of trading on bills that often occurs as the session ends - there almost certainly would be 60 votes for passage, according to Senate observers. 

The Congresswoman said that she does not doubt the coercive intimidation of the NRA or its capacity to bully and frighten members as an election nears.  However, she said, the discharge petition that provoked this crisis became possible only because many Democrats are cosponsors whose seats are not endangered, including two Congressional Black Caucus members, who are on both bills.  Many of the 64 Democrats who co-sponsored have safe seats or little competition. 

D.C. is uniquely vulnerable, and the NRA is unusually powerful, but Norton predicted that other powerful interests will follow suit by driving similar wedges between conservative and progressive Democrats.  She has suggested some preventative steps Democrats might want to take.  Republicans increasingly are using wedge issues in the House to exploit the broad political diversity of House Democrats in order to separate progressive from conservative Democratic members. 

After getting the decision it wanted, written by the most conservative member of the Supreme Court, Norton said, the NRA has shown it is concerned with much more than D.C. gun laws.  “This continuing pressure after NRA has won in court has other purposes, feeding NRA’s own agenda and voracious appetite for raising funds at the expense of District citizens in order to intimidate members of Congress,” Norton said. 

Both NRA bills repeal D.C. gun laws, including the ban on handguns, semiautomatic weapons, and registration requirements, among other provisions.  Although the Council was close to summer session when the Supreme Court decision was issued, District officials moved quickly to comply by passing emergency legislation, effective for no more than 90 days, as the city continues to develop new permanent gun laws.  The emergency Council bill is a stop gap measure that was all the District could do without hearings.  Two days of hearings have been scheduled in September by Councilman Phil Mendelson.  The emergency bill showed the city’s good faith attempt to be in initial compliance and allow registration to occur over the summer while permanent legislation is being written, Norton said.

Cummings says CPSC bill is just a first step

Cummings a senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released the following statement regarding H.R. 4040, the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act Conference Report, which is scheduled to be considered by the House of Representatives later today:

“Last year was a very disturbing year for parents across the country, as we watched toy after toy flashing across the news screen with headlines of toxic levels of lead in their paint, hazards caused by small parts falling off and being swallowed, and chemicals—including gamma-Hydroxy butyrate —the Date Rape Drug—at levels high enough to put our children into comas. That so many toys were able to slip through the cracks and into the toy stores was shocking to the conscience and completely unacceptable.

“Today, my colleagues and I will be considering final passage of an important piece of toy safety legislation that takes the first step in restoring consumer confidence in the aftermath of the Year of the Recall. This legislation sets the highest standards in the world for lead in toys and children’s jewelry. It strengthens the ability of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to notify consumers about dangerous products. It bans the importation of toys and other children’s products that have not been tested and do not conform to U.S. standards. And, very importantly, it offers a significant budget increase for the CPSC so that this agency—whose operation is critical to protecting U.S. consumers—can begin employing the staff that is necessary to fulfill its mission.

“However, while this bill is an important step in protecting children, we must not forget that it is only a first step. The new authorities offered to the CPSC are only as effective as the agency’s willingness to implement them. My colleagues and I will be watching the CPSC very closely to ensure that it is exercising the necessary oversight and authority to protect our children from undue harm—particularly with regulations on proprietary labs performing tests on children’s products. The highest lead standards in the world mean nothing if their enforcement is inadequate or non-existent.

“Additionally, we must not allow toy manufacturers to forget their ultimate responsibility in ensuring that the shelves of our toy stores—and of our children’s bedrooms—are not being stocked with toxic toys and other hazardous products. While it is important to have an agency such as the CPSC as an added safety net, the toy industry has a responsibility to implement whatever practices are necessary to comply with the standards that have been established to keep our children healthy and happy. I have been and will continue to be holding discussions with the leaders of the toy industry to ensure that such safety measures are in place and in practice.

“I encourage all of my colleagues to join me today in supporting the well-being of our children by supporting this toy safety legislation, and continuing to move forward on this important issue.”

Congresswoman Barbara Lee Hails New Global AIDS Law

Lee attended the White House signing ceremony of legislation she co-authored reauthorizing The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, (PEPFAR). The House passed the bill on July 25, 2008 by a vote of 303-115 and sent it to the White House for signature.

“I was pleased today to attend the White House signing of legislation reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR,” stated  Lee.  “As one of the original co-authors of not only this bill but the original legislation in 2003, it has been a tremendous bipartisan effort to get to this day.”

“This bill is the latest in a long string of bipartisan initiatives on global HIV/AIDS that have been born out of a willingness to work together and put the United States on the right side of history when it comes to this global pandemic,” said Lee, a co-author of the legislation.  “Despite his failings on so many critical issues, the President deserves recognition for working with Congress to enact this important legislation.”

Today’s signing will authorize a $48 billion increase to the program which will make it possible to prevent 12 million new HIV infections globally, provide treatment for at least 3 million individuals with HIV/AIDS treat 450,000 children and ensure care for 12 million individuals, including 5 million orphans and vulnerable children in communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

“As a Member of the Appropriations Committee and the relevant subcommittees that will fund the programs in this law, I will work to ensure we meet the funding commitments and targets we set out in this important new law.”

Among several provisions authored by Lee, the bill includes language removing the statutory ban on travel and immigration for people living with HIV/AIDS.

“I am so pleased that we were able to eliminate the unjust and discriminatory policy banning HIV/AIDS positive people from entering the United States,” said Lee.  “It’s far past time we got rid of this shameful policy.  I’m glad we were able to remove the statutory ban and pass this bill less than three before the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.”

Rep. John Lewis Introduces Bus Passenger Safety Bill as Response to Atlanta Bluffton Accident

On March 2, 2007, the Bluffton University baseball team was traveling from Ohio to Florida for a tournament. Early in the morning, on Interstate 75 in Atlanta, its chartered bus, attempting to exit the highway, fell off an overpass and landed on its side on the road below. The crash resulted in the deaths of five members of the baseball team, the driver and his wife, and injuries for many of the other 33 passengers on-board.

As former Member of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, Lewis investigated why safety belts are not offered in passenger buses and on school buses.  He remembered that in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity (SAFETEA-LU) Act of 2005 Congress demanded that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) develop a standard that bus manufacturers would have to adhere to reduce complete and partial ejections in crashes by October 1, 2009. 

The Congressman was disturbed by how little progress had been made on this rule. In response, he submitted a reporting request to the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.  This request was accepted by the Subcommittee and included in the fiscal year 2008 appropriations bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year.

Consequently, the bill demands that the NHSTA provide an interim report to Congress on the progress of the new safety rule by May 1, 2008.  Simultaneously, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) also took action in the Senate to introduce the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2007.

Lewis will introduce a companion bill today in the House as the lead sponsor in the U.S. House of Representatives of this legislation.

Rep. John Lewis Votes for Women’s Equal Pay for Equal Work

Lewis backed a comprehensive measure that will help end the discriminatory practice of paying a woman less than a man for performing the same job. The Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1338) will strengthen the landmark Equal Pay Act and close the loopholes that have allowed some employers to avoid responsibility for discriminatory pay.

“It is not right.,” said Lewis. “It is not fair. It is not just that women doing the same job are not receiving equal compensation as men for the same work. I am glad that the U.S. Congress took action to help right this wrong today.”

Although the wage gap between men and women has narrowed since the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, gender-based wage discrimination remains a significant problem for women in the U.S. workforce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women only make 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In addition, African American women only earn 66 cents on the dollar while Hispanic women earn 55 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. The Institute of Women’s Policy Research concluded that this wage disparity will cost a woman anywhere from $400,000 to $2 million over her lifetime in lost wages.

The Democratic Congress has taken important steps to stop the practice of discriminatory pay. Last year, the House approved the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, legislation that rectifies a recent Supreme Court decision that has made it harder for workers to pursue pay discrimination claims. “The Paycheck Fairness Act builds is just another contribution of a Congress committed to serve the American people,” said Lewis. “Another accomplishments of one of the most productive legislative sessions in the history of this body.”

Congresswoman Expressed Need To Address Domestic Epidemic New CDC Data Illustrates Larger Epidemic Within Our Own Borders

Lee expressed concern that a statement released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates growing numbers of domestic HIV/AIDS cases. The report reveals that the number of cases reported annually in the U.S. is as high as 56,300, higher that the 40,000 reported earlier.

"The newly revised incidence numbers released today by the CDC reveal what many of us have known all along. We are not winning the fight against HIV/AIDS here in the United States, and what's worse, we don't even have a national plan to combat it," stated Lee. "We have been a leader in fighting the global problem of HIV/AIDS and our efforts will save millions in the developing world from certain death and new infections through the reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)."

"But when it comes to saving the lives of our own communities, many of which are African American, we have ignored the growing epidemic and failed to devote the same commitment and resources."

If Black America were its own country, according to a report from the Black Aids Institute, "Left Behind", it would rank 16th worldwide in the number of people infected, more than in Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Lesotho or Swaziland. While most sub-Saharan nations have general HIV prevalence rates higher than the 2-3 percent found across Black America, infection rates among some segments of the Black community, including men overall and gay and bisexual Black men in particular, rival those of many African nations.

"Although we know how to prevent the spread of HIV, this administration continues to insist on funding ineffective abstinence only education programs that are failing to equip our children with the skills and knowledge necessary to protect themselves," stated Lee. "We need to get real with our young people and teach them comprehensive sex education in our schools."

"We also need to target our interventions to communities that need them. We must fully fund the Minority AIDS Initiative with at least $610 million this year, and expand HIV preventions services and outreach among minority communities, especially African Americans."

Lee was an original coauthor of the PEPFAR legislation in 2003, and the recently signed 2008 reauthorization which includes the lift of the statutory travel ban for travelers with HIV/AIDS as authored by her. She is currently participating in the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.


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