Is This the Year of the Woman Legislator?

Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:05pm

A full two decades later, 1992 is still universally recognized as “The Year of the Woman” in the annals of congressional history. The next couple of months will decide whether 2013 should become its closest rival.

By the numbers, the suddenness of the Capitol’s demographic change in the 103rd Congress remains amazing to consider. Famously fueled by the Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas showdown in front of an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, more women sought and won seats in Washington than ever before in 1992. The number of female senators tripled, from two to six, and two dozen newcomers nearly doubled the ranks of women in the House.

The rosters have grown slowly but steadily ever since, to nowhere close to population parity but nonetheless to record strength: 18 percent in today’s House and 20 percent in the Senate.

So far, though, those numbers haven’t been matched with anything close to a commensurate amount of legislative power and influence for women at the Capitol. Except for Nancy Pelosi, who broke the glass ceiling in American government when she became the 52nd speaker, few women have held positions of real power in Congress. But this year, more than a dozen women other than Pelosi have titles and jurisdictions that will make them essential to determining how much and what kind of legislating gets accomplished.

That new reality will become crystal clear this week, when three veteran senators are positioned to claim front-page victories.

Maryland’s Barbara A. Mikulski, the first woman ever handed the gavel of Senate Appropriations, will manage the floor debate on a $984 billion package that seeks to do the best for Democratic domestic priorities against the reality of the sequester, whose bottom-line cut to discretionary spending is locked in for the rest of the fiscal year. Her pragmatic approach looks like a lock to produce passage by Thursday, and when that happens, Mikulski will become the first leader of Appropriations to steer a non-emergency appropriations measure to Senate passage in 15 months.

By simply returning a modicum of regular order to one aspect of the budget process that has been almost wholly dysfunctional, the longest-serving woman in congressional history will have cemented her place as one of the year’s power players.

Patty Murray of Washington, the first woman ever in charge of the Budget Committee, will unveil a fiscal blueprint for fiscal 2014 and push it through her panel. A budget resolution hasn’t been debated by the entire Senate since 2009, a record the Republicans ridicule at every opportunity. Assuming it’s adopted next week — a good bet because a GOP filibuster of such measures won’t be allowed — Murray will become the face of a Democratic caucus unafraid, for the first time in four years, to go on record almost unified behind an expensive mix of tax increases and entitlement changes to rein in the deficit.

Finally, California’s Dianne Feinstein is confident the Judiciary Committee will endorse both reviving the ban on military-style rifles and broadly expanding federal background checks of gun buyers. The full Senate may well spurn both proposals in the spring, but either way Feinstein can claim to have advanced a drive for more gun control legislation further than at any time since the late 1990s.

Those three are among the eight women with gavels at the Senate’s 21 committees, a reflection of how the seniority system is now richly rewarding Democrats for getting a head start over the GOP in sending women to Washington. There are only 19 women in the House Republican ranks now, just one more than the number of Democratic women in the California delegation.

The GOP leadership in the House is well aware of this gender gap and helped arrange for two women — Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Lynn Jenkins of Kansas — to take two top spots in the Republican Conference.  Two weeks ago they were instrumental in persuading their superiors to allow this year’s first big change to domestic policy, an update and expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, to become law without the tortuous fight many conservatives were clamoring for.

It was a sign, however small, that the influence of women in federal policymaking may someday become a genuinely bipartisan phenomenon.