In this age of acronyms, the meaning of ERA is almost universally known: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." It is a topic of nationwide debate. That debate goes beyond the substantive question of whether the ERA should or should not be the 27th amendment to the Constitution, to a procedural issue of extending the deadline for its consideration by the states.
That procedural question of extension of the deadline for seven years beyond the present March 1979 cut off date goes to the heart of a concept basic to American society: the opportunity for full discussion of matters of national concern.
When Congress overwhelmingly approved the ERA in the early part of this decade, it continued a recent practice of setting a seven-year time limit for consideration by the states of a proposed amendment (no time limits at all were set for most of the first 20 amendments), in order to have the issue settled within a "reasonable" time. Reasonableness of time as to ERA was based partly on the then-prevailing view that the issue would be fully debated and acted upon - either positively or negatively - by mid-decade.
Instead, the intensity of debate on this matter of significant political, social and economic concern, and the slowness of state legislatures in bringing the matter to a vote, have combined to make the seven-year period now appear in retrospect to have been unreasonable.
At a time when more and more individuals, officials and representatives of organizations are entering the debate, there is the prospect that they will be denied their say, unless House Joint Resolution 638, which I am co-sponsoring, is adopted, there by extending the discussion period to March 1986.
Complex economic issues such as discrimination against women in countless existing statutes, among them the Social Security law and the Equal Pay Act, must be fully and fairly discussed, and the issue of supposed loss of rights must be fully considered, dispelling what are the myths and fictions, while resolving genuine questions.
Some states that have yet to act on ratification have no legislative sessions in 1978, among them Nevada and Arizona. In other states, such as Utah, where only the budget will be considered in 1978, legislators have used intricate procedural devices to preclude consideration of the amendment.
Moreover, with the memberships of those legislatures up for reelection in November 1978, there is little opportunity - unless the period is extended - for voters to have their views, as expressed by their selections in the voting booths, truly reflected in legislative roll-call yeas and nays on the ERA.
Representatives of the Justice Department have testified that in their opinion Congress has the constitutional and legal right to extend the deadline. When the ERA was drafted the seven-year provision was inserted in a procedural clause - the preamble - a clause separate and distinct from the Equal Rights Amendment already approved by 35 of the 38 needed states.
Congress has not only the right but also the responsibility to extend the deadline, if only to demonstrate its concern for the issues to which the ERA responds, and to acknowledge the widespread public interest in and discussion of those issues.
I hope Congress will exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility, keeping the forum open for much-needed local, state, and national debate.
To do otherwise - to allow the March 1979 cutoff to go into effect - would be to draw the curtain on many, both proponents and opponents, who are waiting in the wings to have their say.