Women's restroom shortage is out of line, lawmakers say

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 13, 2010; A02

There are times when the legislative plumbing gets clogged, when frustration overflows, when the American people must pull up their collective trousers and reach for the plunger.

Now is just such a time.

"This is not a minor issue," Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) pronounced as he convened a hearing Wednesday of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

"I think we need to approach this, as our chairman has, with the urgency of now," added Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). "It is an urgent situation. . . . I'm talking about the urgency of this moment."

And what is this urgent situation that inspired the lawmaker to echo the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s phrase about the "fierce urgency of now"? King fought for racial justice. Towns and his colleagues are fighting for ladies' toilets.

"I am certain that every woman in this room has frequently experienced the inconvenience, as well as the discomfort, caused by an insufficient number of women's restroom facilities," the chairman announced. His solution: H.R. 4869, the Restroom Gender Parity in Federal Buildings Act -- known as "potty parity."

In the past, similar proposals have fallen victim to stall tactics. But by scheduling Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers proved they are now ready to plumb for solutions to this vexing problem.

There are those who might say that, in the swirl of big issues, Congress probably has something better to do than fret about plumbing. Afghanistan's president is in town, there's a new Supreme Court nominee, and the Gulf of Mexico is turning into an oil drum. But the forces for W.C. equality can no longer fight the urge.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), one of the witnesses, said the importance of the issue came to him while he was waiting for his date at a concert. "The women's line was tremendously long," he testified. "There were women jumping into the men's line and joining in the men's restroom. A lot of beer was served. . . . There were women in distress."

The chairman had a similar lavatory epiphany while waiting for his wife, stuck in a long restroom line during intermission at a play. "I'm getting really agitated," Towns recalled. "The second act was going to start."

The lawmaker reacted as lawmakers usually do. He decided there oughta be a law.

The bill is called gender parity, but really the proponents want preferential treatment for women, simply because women for some reason refuse to use urinals. Something here doesn't smell right.

Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), who as the ranking Republican on the committee is usually a not a fan of set-asides, explained the need for affirmative action on the loo issue. "Anyone who has ever been to a black-tie event held at the Kennedy Center is well aware that there is a line . . . that wraps halfway around the building at the ladies' rooms," he reasoned. And yet, "the Kennedy Center enjoys equal number of facilities for men and women."

Issa explained the standard ratio for women's toilets to men's toilets in federal buildings: "Basically 1 to 1 if you count urinals, 2 to 1 if you don't count urinals." In other words, the ratio is one to one for Number One, and two to one for Number Two.

That seems pretty good to the General Services Administration, which manages federal facilities and their toilets. "It's not an issue I gave a lot of thought to until you scheduled the hearing," testified Robert Peck, commissioner of the GSA's public buildings service. "When we take surveys of tenant satisfaction in our buildings, we're not finding complaints."

That's probably because women's restroom lines tend to be at ballparks and theaters. The legislation wouldn't affect such venues, unless the federal government happens to run them. Maybe that's why only eight of the 41 committee members trickled in for the hearing, and most in the audience members were from church groups in the chairman's Brooklyn district.

The lawmakers justified their legislation with appeals to civil rights (Rep. Diane Watson, a California Democrat, recalled the "colored" restrooms of the South) and health (Rep. Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat, testified that a woman's need to "hold it" can result in "abdominal pain, increased risk of cystitis, urinary tract infections").

But mostly they heard about how annoying it is for a woman to wait before doing her business. "By age 80, we will have taken over 200,000 trips to the toilet and spent two years of our life in restrooms," testified Kathryn Anthony of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She said the issue was "near and dear to the hearts and bladders of women."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) explained why her gender needs more restrooms: "Women spend longer in there" because "we have to tend to our looks as well."

To this, Cohen, as a man, could relate. "When you go in and you're a man, you don't have to take off any clothing, and it can be done and you're in and you're out and you don't do lipstick."

"You're not a Californian," Issa interjected.

After 90 minutes of this, the federal bathroom situation had been thoroughly scrubbed. The lawmakers were drained. The witnesses were excused. Everybody was relieved.

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