English Only Update VI

              Committee Approves
              'Language of Government' Bill

              By James Crawford

              July 25, 1996

A modified English-only bill, approved yesterday by the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, appears to be on a legislative fast track. After months of inaction, H.R. 123 (the "Language of Government Act") is suddenly a priority for House Republican leaders. The measure is expected to come to a vote late next week, before Congress leaves for its August recess. With nearly 200 cosponsors and a clear display of party discipline in committee, the English-only bill seems likely to pass in the House, although Senate support remains uncertain.

If enacted, H.R. 123 would designate English as the official and sole permissible language of U.S. government business, with only a few exceptions. The use of other languages would be permitted for purposes of national security, international trade and diplomacy, public safety, and criminal proceedings.

To mollify critics of the bill's restrictiveness, Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) proposed an amended version of H.R. 123 that would also waive the English-only mandate in the case of language education including programs funded under the Bilingual Education Act and the Native American Languages Act public health, census activities, and civil lawsuits brought by the U.S. government. It would also exempt oral communications with the public by federal employees, officials, and members of Congress. Federal publications that is, virtually all written materials in languages other than English would still be banned. The House committee passed the Cunningham "substitute" on a vote of 19 Republicans in favor and 17 Democrats against.

The committee's day-long session was remarkable for its rancor and partisanship, even by the standards of the 104th Congress. Democrats accused the Republican majority of desperately seeking to exploit anti-immigrant feeling in an election year, even if that meant violating constitutional principles of free speech and equal rights. "What about people who think in another language?" asked ranking Democrat Bill Clay (Mo.). "Would your bill prohibit that?" Republicans labeled such attacks as "demagogy," insisting they merely want to unite the country through a common language and help newcomers learn English.

Rep. Matthew Martinez (D-Calif.) argued that the bill would deprive limited English speakers of essential rights and services while doing nothing to address the acute shortage of adult English classes in cities like New York and Los Angeles. (In the past two years, Congressional budget cutters have substantially reduced federal support for such classes.) "The idea that people who come to this country don't want to speak English is the sickest thing I've ever heard," Martinez said, accusing the bill's proponents of "promoting fear" of language minorities. "I'm sorry that people on the other side of the aisle are so insecure that they feel they need to do this," he said.

Cunningham responded to Martinez: "You want to keep people in the barrio" by discouraging them from learning English. "We want to empower them." Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) added that "the purpose of this bill isn't just to make people speak English; it's to help them reach the American dream." As a small business owner, Ballenger said he had personally sponsored language classes for his foreign-born employees. "My Vietnamese are the best workers in the world because they can speak English," he said.

Citing the majority's refusal to discuss constitutional objections or to justify any need for the legislation, Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) called the session "the most maddening debate I've sat through in my 18 years in Congress." Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) observed that even though everyone was speaking English, there was little communication taking place between the two sides.

Throughout the day the partisan split was consistent in votes on several proposed amendments, with not a single defection from either the Democratic or Republican side.

The committee rejected an amendment by Del. Carlos Romero-Barcelo (D-P.R.) that would have allowed federal agencies to communicate in other languages to promote government efficiency. Rep. Jan Meyers (R-Kans.) argued that such an exemption would "totally gut the bill. What we're saying is that agencies must communicate in English. ... If I was in China, I wouldn't expect their government to print everything in my language."

The lawmakers then approved a proposal by Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to extend English-only restrictions to all "publications, informational materials, income-tax forms, and the contents of franked [i.e., Congressional and other U.S. government] mail." Under questioning, Graham conceded that his amendment would forbid virtually any written communication by a federal agency in another language, including the tourist-oriented pamphlets of the National Park Service. Graham insisted, however, that "common sense" would eliminate any need to remove the slogan "E Pluribus Unum" from U.S. currency and coins.

Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hi.) offered an amendment to keep the bill from infringing the freedom of speech, due process, and equal protection of the law. But Republicans objected to including what Graham called a "laundry list" of constitutional rights. Instead, they inserted an assurance that H.R. 123 was not intended to conflict with the U.S. Constitution.

Finally, the committee rejected an English Plus substitute proposed by Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). It would have removed the bill's restrictive features and advocated a policy of encouraging the acquisition of English, plus other languages, to promote international competitiveness and preserve cultural resources. Before voting against the Becerra amendment, Cunningham conceded that "we're fools if we don't learn other languages in this country." But he insisted that language restrictions are necessary because of "a propensity for more and more Americans not to speak English" citing anecdotal evidence from his own Congressional district in south San Diego.

Until this week, H.R. 123 had appeared to be going nowhere. Its chief sponsor, Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), recently died after a long bout with cancer. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime backer of English-only legislation, apparently decided the measure could boost Republicans' prospects in the 1996 election. As recently as May, Committee chairman Bill Goodling (R-Pa.) had assured the Joint National Committee for Languages that he would block the bill from reaching the House floor. But Goodling did an unexplained about-face yesterday, along with Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wisc.) and other members of the majority side who had expressed reservations about H.R. 123 during committee hearings.

In the Senate, Republicans have postponed three scheduled votes on a companion measure, S. 356, where support is weaker than on the House side of the Capitol. Meanwhile, the Justice and Education departments have spoken out in opposition. But President Clinton, who once signed a similar measure as governor of Arkansas, has yet to commit himself publicly on federal English-only legislation.

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.