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U.S. House removes ERA ratification deadline, one obstacle to enactment

The House on Feb. 13 passed a resolution that would revive the dormant Equal Rights Amendment. (Video: House of Representatives)
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The U.S. House gave the Equal Rights Amendment a temporary new lease on life Thursday by voting to remove a 1982 deadline for ratification by the states.

The 232-to-183 vote, on a resolution introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), pushes the issue to the Senate, where Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have introduced a similar measure.

During debate on the House floor, Republicans leaned on antiabortion and constitutional arguments to oppose the ERA, arguing that enshrining protections for women in the Constitution would mean abortion could not be restricted. Democrats focused on the legality of deadlines and the importance of equal rights.

“This has nothing to do with the abortion issue. That is an excuse, not a reason,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), arguing that women are still paid less than men for similar work, and often are shorted on pensions and maternity leaves.

The Democratic side of the House floor erupted in cheers once enough votes were cast to ensure the resolution would pass. Republican Reps. John Curtis (Utah), Rodney Davis (Ill.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Tom Reed (N.Y.) and Jeff Van Drew (N.J.) joined 227 Democrats in voting for it.

Pelosi and some other female lawmakers wore purple to show their support for the long-sought amendment, which was first proposed nearly a century ago.

But it will take more than color coordination to enact the ERA.

Three-quarters of the states must ratify a proposed amendment for it to be added to the Constitution. With new Democratic majorities in both chambers, the Virginia General Assembly met that threshold last month, becoming the 38th state to ratify the ERA.

Supporters of the amendment say Congress’s deadline can be changed by a simple vote of the same body, because the Constitution itself does not specify a ratification deadline. Others disagree.

In anticipation of Virginia’s vote, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel advised the national archivist not to certify the ratification because of the expired deadline.

Three lawsuits have been filed over the ERA, including one last month by the attorneys general of Illinois, Nevada and Virginia, calling for its addition to the Constitution. A lawsuit opposing ratification was filed in Alabama last year by the attorneys general of Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota. A third lawsuit filed in Massachusetts in January supports ratification.

At least one of the legal challenges is expected to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ERA, first proposed in Congress in 1923, was reintroduced every year until it passed in 1972. Its 1979 ratification deadline was extended to 1982 after only 35 states ratified it. But no others ratified the measure before the second deadline passed.

The ERA was considered dead until 1992, when the 27th Amendment, which addresses the pay for members of Congress, was ratified 202 years after it was introduced. Unlike the ERA and other amendments proposed in the 20th century, it had no deadline for ratification.

Nevada’s legislature endorsed the ERA in 2017, followed by Illinois in 2018.

But five states that ratified the amendment in the 1970s have since said they wanted to rescind their votes. ERA proponents say those actions are moot, because reversals have not been allowed in the past, while opponents say it’s a clear signal of the will of the states.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a longtime ERA advocate, told an audience at Georgetown University Law School earlier this week that she thinks ERA activists should start over.

“There’s too much controversy about latecomers,” Ginsburg said. “Plus, a number of states have withdrawn their ratification. So if you count a latecomer on the plus side, how can you disregard states that said, ‘We’ve changed our minds’?”

Republicans on the House floor Thursday repeatedly quoted the justice’s words as they marshaled arguments against the amendment.

Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Georgia) said the ERA would allow unfettered access to abortion, which he said could jeopardize fetuses with chronic, debilitating diseases. He noted his 27-year-old daughter Jordan was born with spina bifida. “This is an open door to abortion on demand with no restrictions, no government interference. In fact, government would pay for it,” an emotional Collins said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) pointed out that abortion is, in fact, legal now, and has been since the Roe v. Wade case was decided in 1973.

Despite arguments that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees rights to all citizens, protects women’s equality, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said those rights are elusive without the ERA. “We’ve seen it when the Supreme Court gutted the Violence Against Women Act, we’ve seen it when judges don’t enforce equal pay for equal work, or when a federal judge ruled that Congress didn’t have the authority to outlaw female genital mutilation,” she said.

Students for Life Action, which calls itself the nation’s largest youth organization that opposes abortion, focused its advocacy on the Republican-majority Senate on Thursday, delivering anti-ERA petitions to that chamber.

Kristan Hawkins, president of the group, said the ERA should not be allowed to “sneak its way” into the Constitution.

“I think it's unnecessary,” Hawkins said in an interview. “This was supposed to be dead three years before I was born.”

Others celebrated the resolution’s passage, including the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary Friday.

“I can’t think of a better birthday present than this clear progress towards a more equal democracy for women,” said president Chris Carson. “The ERA will pave the way for further legislative progress towards gender equality and will allow the courts to closely scrutinize sex-based discrimination.”

The ERA Coalition, which has championed the measure for six years, said in a statement after the vote: “We’re thrilled the House removed the so-called time limit. We hope the Senate will soon follow.”

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