March 16, 2010, 02:37 pm
By Erika Wood, attorney, and Garima Malhotra, research associate, at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
Today Congress is listening to 4 million silenced Americans.
Leaders of the House Judiciary Committee are holding a hearing on the
Democracy Restoration Act, legislation
that seeks to restore the right to vote to people with a criminal
records who are out of prison, living in the community.
This bill would eliminate the last blanket barrier to the
franchise, and reverse decade of discrimination create by laws firmly
rooted in our country’s Jim Crow history.
5.3 million American
citizens are denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction
in their past. Four million are people who are out of prison, living in
the community. States vary on whether, when and how they restore voting rights to people with criminal conviction, but all told
35 states continue to disenfranchise people who are out of prison, often for decades and sometimes for life.
disenfranchisement laws trace directly back to Jim Crow and were part
of a concerted effort to maintain white control over access to the
polls. Enacted alongside poll taxes and literacy tests, criminal
disenfranchisement laws were part of a larger backlash against the
adoption of the Reconstruction Amendments. At the same time states
enacted these disenfranchisement provisions, they began to expand the
criminal codes to punish offense they believed freed slaves were most
likely to commit. The result: suppressed African-American political
power for decades.
Today, 13% of African-American men in our country have lost the right to vote.
This past Sunday I was thrilled to host Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at two forums, one in Cedar Rapids and one in Des Moines, that focused on the future of our public schools. Secretary Duncan’s Blueprint for Reform, which he unveiled this weekend, revises the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – also known as No Child Left Behind - to help states raise expectations of students and reward schools for producing dramatic gains in student achievement. Attending our forums were local education leaders, parents and students to ensure that our work to re-draft ESEA includes the ideas and needs of our communities. I felt it was appropriate to begin this discussion in Iowa – the first state to establish core academic standards, and a state respected nationwide for the quality of its public schools and teachers.
We have an opportunity before us to fix the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act and start making federal policy that will help our educators ensure that all students succeed. President Obama has taken the lead by laying out a bold vision for how we can make America’s schools the best in the world. As Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee I look forward to working with the President, the Secretary and my colleagues in Congress on both sides of the aisle to write an education law that maintains our focus on the success of all students, while giving states and districts the support to do their jobs.
The author is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
My colleague of twenty five years, Ted Kennedy, left an enormous imprint on the Senate and on our country. Today we quietly mark the 30th anniversary of one of his most visionary legislative accomplishments.
The Refugee Act of 1980 paved the way for what is now the most robust and effective refugee program in the world. Thirty years later, we can celebrate the almost three million refugees we have welcomed into our land and our lives.
Many fled unspeakable horror and persecution. All learned firsthand our country's generous spirit of welcome. The "lost boy" from southern Sudan whose village was destroyed in civil war. The young man unlucky enough to be born an ethnic Rohingya in Burma, despised by his own government and denied even the basic identity papers that connote official personhood. The mother of three whose husband was killed by insurgents in return for his service to American troops in Iraq. The American people have welcomed all of them -- and many more.
Last weekend our family had the privilege of joining colleagues from both political parties on a walk through the historic sites of the Civil Rights movement in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. We will never forget the experience. I served as co-leader of the 10th Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute.
We arrived in Montgomery on Saturday afternoon and made our way to the home church of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sitting in the front pew at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, we heard from Dorothy Cotton about her years working with Dr. King. She spoke of the faith that sustained their work and the historic importance of music and singing to the movement.
We then made our way to the Civil Rights Memorial, where our kids were given the privilege of laying a wreath to honor those who had lost their lives in the struggle for equality, and into the nearby museum with its inspiring displays of history. But it was the personal stories of segregation, told by the people who lived it and peacefully fought against it, that were most moving to us. Hearing firsthand accounts of how African Americans in the South were systematically denied the right to vote, intimidated, beaten and even killed fighting for that right will never leave us.
How far we've come since last June when I first committed to you that I would do all I could to work toward repeal of the corrosive policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Since then, I've worked hard to whip support for an amendment to
temporarily halt the enforcement of the policy; I secured the
commitment of Chairman Levin to hold the first Senate hearings on DADT,
the first of which, I'm proud to say, was held early last month; and
just last week, I was thrilled to stand with my colleagues as an
original co-sponsor of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2010,
which will repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and prohibit
discrimination of servicemembers based on their sexual orientation.
We are now closer than we've ever been to repealing this unjust and
discriminatory measure that both hampers our national security and
violates the civil rights of some of our bravest Americans.
At a time when we're fighting multiple wars abroad, we need all of our best and brightest serving.
During the past year I've had conversations with thousands of people
from all parts of Colorado, and I've heard a common refrain: Washington
isn't working. Last week, the obstructionist actions of Republican
senator Jim Bunning left no doubt that the people of Colorado are right
-- Washington is broken, and it's getting worse.
The filibuster was originally intended to protect minority rights
and encourage meaningful debate on the Senate floor. Today, this
important rule is being abused at an unprecedented rate, and it's
grinding the business of the Senate to a standstill.
That's why I am introducing new legislation to reform the Senate's
rules -- to reform the filibuster in a responsible, practical way. My
bill protects minority rights, while allowing the Senate to more
efficiently conduct the people's business and put an end to pointless