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.

Comments? Email me at: jwcrawford@compuserve.com

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 permission to reproduce in any other form should be forwarded by email.