U.S. House votes to remove ERA obstacle

Sensnbrenner warned, “this is going to unleash Pandora’s Box of lots of litigation.”

Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment stand outside the entrance to the Virginia Capitol in Richmond on the opening day of the 2020 legislative session. | Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury
Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment stand outside the entrance to the Virginia Capitol in Richmond on the opening day of the 2020 legislative session. | Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House voted on Thursday to remove one barrier to adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but plenty of legal and political obstacles remain.

The House voted 232-183 on Thursday — largely along partisan lines — to approve a resolution that would remove an expired congressional deadline for the ratification of a constitutional amendment to ensure equality for U.S. citizens under the law, regardless of their sex.

The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923 and was passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate in the 1970s. Lawmakers initially set a March 1979 ratification deadline for states, which was later extended to June 1982. But the amendment still hadn’t gotten the backing of 38 states when that deadline expired.

But this year, Virginia sparked renewed discussions about the fate of the long-stalled ERA when it became the 38th state to ratify the amendment.

In the vote Thursday to remove the deadline, the Wisconsin delegation split along party lines with all the state Democrats backing the resolution and all the state Republicans opposed it. 

The effort faces political opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate and is already ensnared in court battles, but ERA proponents heralded Thursday’s vote as an important step toward enshrining women’s equality in the Constitution.

“This is an historic day, a happy day as the House takes action to move our nation closer to the founding — our founding ideal that all are created equal,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

US Rep Jim Sensenbrenner and then-Speaker Paul Ryan on the Speaker's balcony (courtesy Sensenbrenner )
US Rep Jim Sensenbrenner and then-Speaker Paul Ryan on the Speaker’s balcony (courtesy of Sensenbrenner Office)

Not surprisingly, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) did not agree with the Democratic speaker and had a lengthy explanation for his no vote on the ERA, including the possibility that women’s insurance rates would increase.

Proponents of the ERA “say there’s a cornucopia of benefits awaiting women, should the ERA become a part of the Constitution. I’m here to ask members on both sides of the aisle to look past what looks nice on a bumper sticker or a 40-second sound byte to realize that there are going to be many consequences that will hurt women, should this be ratified,” said Sensenbrenner, who is not running for re-election this year. 

When it comes to insurance, which is regulated by states, he said, “girls get substantially lower rates on auto insurance because they’re better drivers. With the ERA, the state regulation, that would become unconstitutional and girls are going to have to pay boy drivers’ rates for auto insurance.”

As for life insurance, he said, “women live longer than men and as a result in life insurance — also regulated by the states — you see women’s rates being lower than men’s rates becoming unconstitutional and women are going to be paying more to life insurance companies for the coverage that they desire.”

Sensnbrenner warned, “this is going to unleash Pandora’s Box of lots of litigation.”

The resolution to remove the deadline faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate and in the courts.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced a Senate version of the resolution to remove the ERA deadline. His bill has 44 co-sponsors, including two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.

 The Trump administration weighed in on the issue recently with a legal opinion that the ERA couldn’t be ratified due to the expired deadline. The opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said, “Congress may not revive a proposed amendment after the deadline has expired.”

That issue is likely to play out in the courts. Several states have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the deadline for ratification had expired. Even if it hadn’t, they said, five states — Nebraska, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky and South Dakota — have since rescinded their ratifications.

Opponents of the ERA, including congressional Republicans, have pointed to recent remarks from liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as evidence that ERA advocates need to start over. “I would like to see a new beginning” for ERA ratification, she said in an interview.

Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate that would effectively start the process from scratch in Congress, but that effort promises to be more politically difficult than getting the votes needed to scrap the deadline.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 18: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presides over Resolution 755 as the House of Representatives votes on the second article of impeachment of President Donald Trump. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC – Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Many Republican lawmakers argued on the House floor Thursday that the Equal Rights Amendment would be used by supporters to fight abortion restrictions. 

“If ratified, the ERA would be used by pro-abortion groups to undo pro-life legislation and lead to more abortions and taxpayer-funding of abortions,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).

 Pelosi brushed off that argument on Thursday, calling it an “excuse” for those who oppose the ERA. “This has nothing to do with the abortion issue,” she said.