English Only Update V
Senate Committee Cancels
Vote on Shelby Bill
By James Crawford
May 16, 1996
This will be a fairly brief, dog-that-did-not-bark story.
Senator Ted Stevens today cancelled a long-anticipated
committee vote on S. 356, the "Language of
Government" bill. After interested parties on both sides had sat through
nearly two hours of unrelated business – a "markup" session of
the Governmental Affairs Committee – chairman Stevens abruptly pulled S.
356 from the agenda.
Stevens's stated reason: the bill's sponsor, Senator Richard
Shelby (R-Ala.), did not approve of an amendment Stevens had planned to
offer that would have exempted a long list of federal activities from the
bill's English-only mandate. These would have included, among other things:
Native American, foreign-language education, and bilingual education programs;
bilingual provisions of the Voting Rights Act; communications between members
of Congress and constituents; and "public documents, acts, statements,
votes, hearings and proceedings for the protection of individual or public
health, safety, and entitlements." The Stevens substitute, if approved,
would seem to reduce S. 356 to a primarily symbolic "official English"
declaration – not a palatable change for U.S. English, English First, and
(presumably) Senator Shelby.
Stevens's unstated reason: he apparently feared that supporters
did not have the votes today to "report out" S. 356 in any form.
Before taking the bill off the agenda, Stevens made several references
to colleagues who were expected to arrive momentarily. None did. Besides
the chairman, only two Republicans showed up for the markup. (Four Democrats
were also in attendance). While other Republicans had no doubt given Stevens
their proxies, it seems there are currently only 5-7 English-only votes
on the committee, which has 15 members.
According to the best estimates of committee staff, opposition
lobbyists, and other semi-informed sources, here's how the Governmental
Affairs votes appear to break down:
- 5 solidly in favor: Stevens (R-Alaska), Roth (R-Del.),
Cochran (R-Miss.), Smith (R-N.H.), and Brown (R-Colo.)
- 5 1/2 solidly against: Glenn (D-Ohio), Levin (D-Mich.),
Lieberman (D-Conn.), Akaka (D-Hi.), Dorgan (D-N.D.), and McCain* (R-Ariz.).
- 4 undeclared or uncommitted: Cohen (R-Me.), Thompson
(R-Tenn.), Nunn (D-Ga.), and Pryor (D-Ark.)
Senator John McCain's name is asterisked because his position
is politically problematic. On the one hand, in communications with constituent
groups he has reaffirmed his longstanding opposition to English-only legislation
– even implying that he would stage a filibuster against S. 356 on the
Senate floor, if necessary. On the other hand, now that English-only has
become a partisan issue, his opposition creates tensions with fellow Republicans.
McCain is now being mentioned as a possible running mate for Bob Dole,
an English-only supporter who may decide to exploit the issue during his
Presidential campaign. Thus far McCain has managed to absent himself at
two hearings, and at today's markup, on S. 356.
Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration has become more
agressive in lobbying against the bill. A May 14 letter from Andrew Fois,
assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, detailed a range of
objections to S. 356 and to Stevens's draft amendment, in particular their
potential threats to governmental efficiency, law enforcement, and the
constitutional rights of language-minority Americans. Fois cited "the
underlying problem of official language legislation: that it is unnecessary,
divisive, and inefficient. Therefore, the Justice Department opposes the
[Stevens] amendment," as well as the Shelby bill.
While this position is heartening to opponents of English-only
legislation, the White House has yet to be heard from. Whether President
Clinton would veto such legislation therefore remains an open question.
According to Democratic sources, the next possible date
for committee action on S. 356 is a markup session scheduled for June 13.
Alternatively, Shelby could offer the bill as an amendment to other legislation
on the Senate floor – as he attempted to do two weeks ago when the Senate
debated the illegal immigration bill. (Once again, however, it appeared
that support was soft. That assessment, combined with parliamentary considerations
involving the Democrats' efforts to force a vote on the minimum wage, led
Majority Leader Dole to pull the amendment.)
No action on English-only legislation has been scheduled
in the House. Indeed, nothing has moved since the Economic and Educational
Opportunity Committee hearings concluded last December. But this could
change quickly if Speaker Newt Gingrich, an English-only proponent, chooses
to push the issue. The Emerson bill, H.R. 123
(identical to S. 356), has 196 cosponsors – 218 votes being necessary to
pass legislation when all members are voting.
In sum, the outcome of the current English-only offensive
– the most formidable to date – remains uncertain because of the large
number of uncommitted members of Congress. For anyone inclined to communicate
arguments on the issue, now is the time.
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Copyright © 1996 by James Crawford. Permission
is hereby granted to reproduce this article for free, noncommercial distribution,
provided that credit is given and this notice is included. Requests for
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