News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

May 10, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Mother of all missed opportunities

Want more progress? Put more women in public office

TERRE HAUTE — So often, we entrust mothers with so much.

They draw duty as mediators when there’s a problem at school, healers when pain hits, and self-sacrificers willing to put the needs of their families ahead of their own. Not perfect, but perfectly equipped, thank God, to be the glue that holds things together. Mother’s Day offers an ideal moment to remember those qualities.

Eighty-five million mothers live in America, according to U.S. Census estimates. Females comprise more than half the national population — 50.8 percent or 160,593,450 Americans, to be exact. The same proportion holds true in Indiana, where 3,338,018 Hoosiers are females.

We want them in our corner in crucial situations, and they are …

Except when it comes to representing and legislating for us in public office.

Of the 535 members of Congress, just 98 are women, a mere 18.3 percent. And that’s a record high. Indiana’s congressional delegation fits that profile, with just two of those 11 Hoosier lawmakers in Washington being women. And that’s a record.

Men dominate the Indiana General Assembly, too, holding 120 of 150 seats. With just 20 percent of the legislators being women, Indiana ranks 35th among state legislatures in female membership. That low ranking could go even lower by next year’s legislative session. Two incumbent female Republican state representatives from northern Indiana — Rebecca Kubacki of Syracuse and Kathy Heuer of Columbia City — lost to men in last week’s GOP primary election.

Guys prevail on top-level public boards locally, too. The Terre Haute City Council is made up of eight men and one woman. The Vigo County Council includes one woman and six men. Two of three county commissioners are men.

At each level, the disproportionate presence of women serving in Congress, the legislature and municipal government panels marks a missed opportunity. Their talents and instincts could profoundly reshape the efficiency of government. The deal reached last year by 14 diligent U.S. senators, averting an economically disastrous federal government default, serves as a prime example.

In October, the dysfunctional Congress was steering the economy toward long-term damage and a drop in America’s world credit ratings. Tea partiers in the U.S. House, encouraged by like-minded Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, forced a government shutdown that dragged on long enough to reach the brink of a first-in-history default on the nation’s bills. They demanded a defunding or repeal of the already-enacted Affordable Care Act.

While the larger egos ranted party-line rhetoric into cable TV cameras, a bipartisan group of 14 senators quietly worked to prevent a default. Only one, Arizona’s John McCain, had national name recognition and five were freshmen. There were seven Republicans, six Democrats and one independent. Most significantly, this coalition was almost half female with six women, even though the overall Senate membership is just 20 percent female. It was Maine Republican Susan Collins’ anger and frustration that triggered their formation.

As the loudest senators railed on the Senate floor, Collins marched forward and urged the mob to “stop fighting and start legislating.”

When they didn’t, she found 13 colleagues who would. The coalition forged a compromise, initially rejected by the Senate leadership. Then, as the rest of Congress continued its stalemate, the Senate bosses — men — asked them to keep working because they were “the only game in town.” Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, one of the 14, described their pizza-fueled marathon sessions, conducted in Collins’ office. “The dynamics were, everybody basically left their political label at the door and worked nonstop,” he said. “It was negotiation where a number of people had different positions. Nobody got 100 percent of what they wanted, but the goal was to make sure our nation was protected.”

Their work led to a compromise, flawed like all legislation, yet necessary. Top economists now say they prevented a default that would’ve lit a global economic crisis.

Women provided the glue to a diverse team that functioned off camera, where responsibility replaced egos. Collins, fellow Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Democrats Heidi Heithkamp of North Dakota, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jeanne Shaheen worked side by side with eight men and did what 86 other senators (including 72 men) could not, or would not.

No doubt, legislators and council members of either gender are capable of hard-headed, stubborn, intransigent behavior. Still, a more proportionate number of women would alter the priorities of government, give proper attention to causes they favor and bring refreshing sensibilities to public debates. Women offer great credentials, too; they’re earning 56.7 percent of bachelor’s degrees these days. Political parties should encourage more to seek office.

Congress, the General Assembly and the City Council — like a family — can benefit by having thoughtful mothers and women in their ranks.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.



 

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