Abortion the third rail of politics

Social Security really isn’t the “third rail” of politics, despite what has been said. Abortion earns that distinction.

For years, members of Congress were as afraid to discuss Social Security as to touch the third rail – the high-voltage one – in a subway train system. But as it becomes more clear something needs to be done about the retirement program, more Americans can talk about it without getting red in the face.

Not so with abortion. We have “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps and talk about “women’s health,” not abortion.

Here in West Virginia, I’d bet the state Legislature has a higher percentage of “pro-life” lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, than in most other states – certainly than in Congress. But some legislators would rather not have to go on record voting for or against abortion-related bills. They know that no matter how they vote, they will alienate a substantial bloc of constituents.

So it was earlier this month that Republicans in the House of Delegates tried to force a vote on House Bill 2364, “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” The bill, noting that research indicates unborn children feel pain after a certain stage in pregnancy, bans abortions on women who have been pregnant more than 20 weeks, except when necessary to avoid harm to the mother.

Immediately after being introduced on Jan. 9, the bill was referred to the House Health and Human Resources Committee. From there, it was scheduled to go to the Judiciary Committee.

Frustrated at lack of action by the HHR panel, a group of Republicans moved earlier this month to discharge the bill from committee and take it to a vote on the House floor. The motion failed by a 48-48 vote. Forty-six Republicans and just two Democrats voted in favor of discharge. All Northern Panhandle Republicans voted in favor of discharge, with all the region’s Democrats voting against.

Some delegates claimed their “no” votes had nothing to do with how they feel about abortion. Instead, the discharge vote was a matter of maintaining the way bills have been handled traditionally – routing them first through committees before going to a floor vote, they insisted.

But that system can be used to keep bills from going to the floor when legislative leaders don’t like them or worry that floor votes would be embarrassing to some delegates.

In the aftermath of the discharge vote, Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairman of the HHR Committee, complained no one had asked him to place HB 2364 on the panel’s agenda. Perdue’s panel quickly took up a similar bill, HB 4588, and agreed to a “do pass” recommendation – but forwarded the bill to the Judiciary Committee.

Last week, that panel’s chairman, Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, had put HB 4588 on the agenda. The House Judiciary Committee voted HB 4588 out, setting the stage for a floor vote.

Even a “do-pass” recommendation from the committee would be no guarantee of a vote on the House floor.

Realistically, the 20-week restriction on abortions has little chance of being enacted. By Friday, the state Senate companion bill, SB 388, had not even made it to the agendas of the two committees to which it was assigned.

But that really isn’t the point. It is, instead, to keep abortion-related bills from getting to the floor of either chamber – so lawmakers don’t have to go on record in votes on them.

How successful are lawmakers in bottling up abortion bills? Of about 15 abortion-related bills assigned to the House HHR Committee, HB 4588 has been the only one to even make it on the agenda for discussion.

Clearly, Democrats who control both the House and Senate are very good at using procedure to give lawmakers cover on controversial issues. How many times have you been told a legislator agreed with you on a bill, but couldn’t vote for it “because, well, it got bottled up in committee …”?

Next time that happens, ask your lawmaker why the bill was stuck in committee – and whether he or she tried to do anything about that.

Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.