Meet the New Congress, Same as the Old One?

The 113th Congress has the demographics and the fresh faces to make up for the lapses of the 112th. Will it deliver on social justice?

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) swears in the newly elected members of the first session of the 113th Congress in the House Chambers
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) swears in the newly elected members of the first session of the 113th Congress in the House Chambers January 3. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

In terms of vastly fulfilled negative expectations, the 112th Congress won’t be an easy act to follow. The lawmakers whose term expired January 2 weren’t stingy in serving up disappointment and frustration. Whether at its antagonizing the financial markets with the fiscal cliff dallying, alienating East Coast residents by punting the Hurricane Sandy relief vote, or the failure to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), advocates of responsible, responsive government are livid with the 112th.

There is statistical evidence for some optimism that the newly sworn in 113th Congress will be different than its predecessor. For one thing, its membership is notable for a few historic firsts. More women (101, including three non-voting members) are serving than ever before. Across the House and Senate, 31 Latinos and 12 Asian Americans are in office, both historic highs. Moreover, 43 African Americans are in office, including South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the first black Republican in the chamber in more than three decades.

Beyond racial and gender diversity, seven openly gay or bisexual lawmakers are now serving, including Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the Senate’s first openly gay member.

MORE: Congress Decides Violence Against Women Act Not Worth Renewing

So will this diversity prompt changes on pressing social justice issues—such as voting access, gun violence, environmental protections, women’s issues or gay rights? Some critics are skeptical, noting that of the 535 voting members of the 113th Congress, 359 are still white men, a U.S. demographic defying 67 percent majority.

So perhaps the statistics don’t guarantee dramatic change after all. That’s all the more reason to keep a sharp eye on the following five issues in the coming months.

1) Voting Rights

On election night in Chicago last November, President Obama paid tribute to the voters who “waited in line for a very long time.” He told the crowd gathered at McCormick Place, “We have to fix that.”

What a fix will look like is unclear, as the federal government has no jurisdiction over the administration of elections.

Still, advocacy groups, including the NAACP, are pushing for federal legislation that will incentivize things such as same-day voter registration and early voting.

“What we’re looking at is a bill to provide those incentives,” Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s senior vice president for advocacy, tells TakePart. He noted the NAACP was looking at possible legislation to be introduced by Georgia Congressman John Lewis (D) and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in the 113th Congress. But Shelton isn’t confining his efforts to working with lawmakers. “What we’re hoping to see is a revitalization of the Election Assistance Commission,” he says, noting that the NAACP was also working its state conferences on local fixes.

“I’m surprised there aren't advocates running down the street with their hair on fire,” Debby Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, tells TakePart. “We’re in new territory.”

2) Gun Violence

Mass shootings in Connecticut, Colorado and Wisconsin during 2012 have put curbing gun violence back on the national agenda. Obama has tapped Vice President Joe Biden to come up with recommendations for gun policy reform, and members of Congress are introducing their own bills aimed at keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of violent criminals. The NAACP, which lobbied for the Clinton-era assault weapons ban, is mounting a similar effort.

“We’ve already had conversations with Senator Dianne Feinstein about a reintroduction of a ban on assault weapons,” says Shelton, who noted that gun violence is the leading cause of death for African-American males aged 15-21. “It’s going to be tough, but I think we'll get it done.”

3) Womens Security and Health

Women’s security and health will probably be a minefield for the 113th Congress, particularly in the coming months. Republicans have resisted expanding the VAWA to include protections for gays and lesbians, Native Americans and undocumented immigrants. The law, which was enacted in 1994, has expired and community groups around the country are uncertain what that means for their funding.

“I’m surprised there aren't advocates running down the street with their hair on fire,” Debby Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, tells TakePart. The expiration of the act could delay federal funding going to local organizations. “It’s slowed down everything and for local projects that are stretched, they’re just quaking in their boots [because] they know the need is going to be at their door, regardless of what happens,” says Tucker. The VAMA, which has been reauthorized three times, has never been allowed to expire before. “We’re in new territory.”

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood, a reproductive-health-care provider, released its annual report this week. Planned Parenthood is often in the GOP’s crosshairs because it receives government funding and—among a myriad of other services—provides abortions (although by law it can’t use taxpayer money to fund the procedures). Its report showed that the organization received $542 million in the form of government grants, contracts, and Medicaid reimbursements in 2011-12. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, called the figure “horrifying” and demanded Congress “immediately investigate and defund Planned Parenthood.”

Whether or not the terms of the abortion debate will be changed by the record number of women in Congress is one wild card in the 113th.

4) The Environment

Climate change reentered the national dialogue after superstorm Sandy hammered the East Coast in late October of last year. Will Congress take any meaningful action on the issue? After all, the House passed a cap-and-trade bill in June 2009 only to see the legislation die in the Senate and many of its proponents get voted out of office in November 2010. Now, though, lawmakers could be open to new proposals, at least that’s according to California Senator Barbara Boxer (D). Boxer recently formed a climate change caucus. “I think you are going to see a lot of bills on climate change,” Boxer told reporters in reference to the 113th Congress. “I don’t know whether [they will include] cap-and-trade, but there will be a lot of different bills. I have already spoken to three colleagues that have bills in the works.”

5) Gay Rights

As the LGBT community waits to see what the Supreme Court will rule on marriage equality when it takes up a case in March, advocates are hoping that Congress can make more immediate, needed changes. Gays who are now serving openly in the military after the repeal last year of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are being denied survivor benefits and VA education benefits available to spouses of service members killed in the line of duty. That’s because the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

The newly arrived contingent of openly gay lawmakers may have an uphill battle, but don’t expect them to sit around waiting for the Supreme Court to save the day.

Do you have high hopes or muted expectations for the new Congress? Leave your predictions in COMMENTS.

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