After months of stalemate, Congress finally has agreed to a compromise on abortion. The end was played out, as is usual in such cases, to nearly empty chambers of each house in a listless and dispiriting display of weariness. In the last five months the members have voted time and again on the issue.
"It is pretty hard to compromise emotional matter," Sen. Warren Magnuson, the Washington Democrat, told his colleagues . . . We voted over and over Last night I said we had voted 18 times. I want to correct the record. We voted 16 times on this measure, and probable 18 on portions of it . . ."
The tone of the words in the House was similar. When you think of te debates we have had on this bill over the past months - the deadly seriousness, the heart-rending debates on both sides of this issue - I just have never seen anything like it." said Rep. Daniel Flood, the pennsylvania Democrat.
Once the compromise had been reached each side, of course, claimed a measure of victory. In the Senate, they were speaking of the resolution as representing a liberalization of the law. In the House, they were saying the "prolife" forces had held firm, that the "turn to the right" embodied in the Supreme Court's decision upholding stringent abortions redecision upholding stringent congressional remained the operative political lesson.
Deliberating over this issue in House and Senate conference, were 27 men. All of them were middle-aged or older. The House confrees. in particular, demonstrated the ludicrousness of citing their actions as meaning any great shifts in the political currents. It was the House that had led the long fight for more punitive abortion measures, and out of that House came conferees who could not be more untpical of the population at large - especially on an issue that directly concerns women the American majority.
Thirteen congressmen sat in judgment. The oldest is 77. Three of them are in their 70s, three in their 60s, five in their 50s, two in their 40s. The youngest, and only one below 40 is 39.
Some political new wave.
In recent weeks the popular prints are becoming filled with "dope" stories about the latest switch in Americans supposedly fickle and elusive political "mood." They are the latest fad and one feeds upon the other. Now it's fashionable to say "conservative mood" is sweeping the country carrying us to the political right. Now we have a "New Right" as opposed to a "New Left" of a few years ago.
Last September New Times magazine carried a bold cover proclaiming "American Turns Right." citing as evidence for this dramatic shift such issues as abortion. Laetrile, ERA, the Paname Canal, gun control and gays. Last weekend. The New York Times prominently displayed a Page 1 story headed "Opinion in U.S. Swinging to Right." That story too, gave similar examples for the new swing.
No matter that a careful reading of these articles fails to reveal much hard evidence for such generalization. Indeed, the evidence given is murky at best. And no matter that the "New Right" is the same old right, a vocal and zealous minority of a minority that labels like liberal and conservative have little relevance in this political present; that the country clearly and consistently has been rejecting extremes for years, whether of left or right; that probably the best political description of America today would be sophisticated, mature, practical and keenly aware of all the tools of mass communication, lobbying and the application of pressure.
But polemics aren't necessary to prove these points. All you have to do is follow the advice of so many critics of Washington - that is, look not to the capital, but to the country. And certainly don't look to that Washington example of old men sitting in judgment on an issue that affects young women for and understanding of national political trends.
Cliches about "grass roots" not with standing. Some fascinating things are taking place at the state level of Amercian politics. They do not fit neatly into political slots of liberal or conservative - and by no means do they give credence to theories about a national turn to the right. If you take time to study the various publications compiled or collected by the Washington office of the National Conference of State Legislatures, you're bound to be struck by several things: our statehouses, so long the object of political scorn and ridicule are now characterized by a sense of vitality, reform, and legislative innovation.
Evan the composition of the state legislature has changed. In the past they were typically poorly paid, unprofessional and dominated by special interests, particularly combinations of rural and legal factions. Today, there are fewer farmers fewer lawyers more blacks, more women, more suburban representatives. Professionalism, including the growth of permanent statehouse staffs, has increased dramatically, along with pay.
Across the country you find evidence of new state programs in such areas as health, criminal justice, personnel procedures, and economic development. Sunshine laws abound. Codes of ethics are becoming common. If you can Charaterize their actions politically you'll come out with something like this: they are taking a hard-nosed, practical approach to fiscal matters and the workings of federal programs coupled with a humane, reform-minded attitude attitude toward social problems. In short, they fal into no definable political category.
Take the matter of crime. Since the Supreme Court ruling of a year ago easing the earlier ban on the death penalty. 17 states have enacted new death penalty statutes. A move to the right, surely. At the same time we've been focusing on the abortion and right-to-life issue here in Washington, the right-to-die movement has been winning support across the nation. A year ago the California Legislature passed a landmark right-to-die law - that is, permitting terminally ill patients to order removal of life-sustaining equipment. In the months since, similar bills have been gaining momentum. The other day Alan L. Otte reported in The Wall Street Journal tha eight states now have enacted some sort of right-to-death legislation. And this year alone, 85 such bills were introduced in 40 state legislatures. A move to the left?
Laws exacting harsher penalties for t use of a gun in commiting a crime have been passed in Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Kansas, Mississippi, Utah, and Virginia. Move to the right? Laws limiting or regulating the use of guns have also been enacted: a cooling-off period now is required to buy a gun in Iowa and Wisconsin, while electric weapons, stun guns are being regulated in Florida and Michigan. Move to the left?
And then consider these two recent examples. The Mississippi Legislature has passed a law easing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The new law eliminates arrest and a jail sentence for first time possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. Mississippi thus becomes the eighth state to enact such a law. It joins Oregon, Alaska, Maine, Colorado, California, Ohio and Minnesota, Mississippi swings left?
Final case in testing political winds three weeks ago while attention was focused on Sadat and Begin in Jerusalem and the women's conference in Houston, the Florida Democratil Party met in Orlando. In that convention assembled, those Floridians freely voted the following action: they endorsed ERA, abortion and decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. They also separately passed resolutions endorsing ratification of the Panama Canal treaties and Jimmy Carter's initiatives in SALT II negotiations with the Russians.
Obviously, we're going so far to the right that we're coming out on the left.