WASHINGTON — The U.S. House voted on Thursday to remove one barrier to adding the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) 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 Michigan delegation was split 7-7 with all Democrats voting for the measure and all Republicans, plus U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) voting no.
“Since the founding of our country, women have not been included in the Constitution. Women continue to face obstacles for full equality, including unequal pay, pregnancy discrimination, sexual and domestic violence, and inadequate health care access,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn). “The ratification of the ERA would have a positive impact on these fronts and make women equal to men in the eyes of the law.”
The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923 and was passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate in the 1970s. Then-U.S. Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-Detroit) was one of the driving forces behind federal action. Michigan ratified the ERA more than 40 years ago, on May 22, 1972.
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.
The effort faces political opposition in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate and is already ensnared in court battles. The largely partisan vote on the ERA Thursday stood in contrast to a largely bipartisan vote earlier this week in the U.S. House that would establish a Smithsonian women’s history museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
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.).
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) accused the GOP of having “this obsession to control and oppress women in the United States of America, and I cannot believe in 2020 we’re still debating the merits of [the] Equal Rights Amendment. It’s beyond time.”
She said the effort “is about women with color, women with disabilities, transgender women, immigrant women. These women are affected by issues like unequal pay, sexual violence, lack of access for health care and poverty. So much of what we’re doing here in trying to promote women’s equality is about gender, racial and economic justice.”
A no vote on the resolution, she said, “is condoning oppression of women in the United States of America.”
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) said on the U.S. House floor that “a woman’s rights must be guaranteed by our government. This bill is about the members of Congress ensuring that the rights and equality for women are part of our Constitution. It’s sad to watch those who lose their way, because they’ll find any way to distract the issue of equality.”
The resolution to remove the deadline faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate and in the courts.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin 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.
Both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), are co-sponsors.
The President 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.
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 U.S. 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.
Lawrence said Republicans “are trying to interject abortion into this. But I want to say that even though we have come so far as women — a record number of women lawmakers here in this House — we have so far to go and this corrects that injustice and recognizes equality for women under the law.”
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this report.