English Only Update VI
'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
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.
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Copyright © 1996 by James Crawford. Permission
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