How the Senate Can Advance Civil and Human Rights Before the End of This Congress

The Senate returned this week and must act swiftly to address its unfinished business before the end of the 117th Congress — including confirming all pending judicial nominees, passing civil and human rights priority bills, and ensuring that several nominees to key federal agencies are finally approved.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently wrote to senators urging them to take meaningful action on these priorities in the coming weeks. Here’s what the Senate can do to advance civil and human rights before the end of this congressional session:

Strengthen the federal judiciary.

For generations, the civil rights community has advocated for a federal judiciary that centers equal justice for all and reflects and represents the rich diversity of our nation. That is why we wrote to senators, in a letter signed by more than 200 organizations, calling on them to confirm all judicial nominees who are and will be pending action by the full Senate before the end of this Congress.

While we celebrate the remarkable progress made towards strengthening our judiciary with the confirmation of nominees committed to our civil rights, the Senate must redouble its efforts so that all pending judicial nominees are confirmed. Right now, dozens of nominees are awaiting full Senate action, and more could be advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the coming weeks. This includes demographically and experientially diverse nominees — including incredible civil rights lawyers — who are committed to equal justice and whose confirmation will make a difference in the lives of people throughout the country.

The stakes are high, and the Senate must make these confirmations a priority.

Pass civil and human rights legislation.

As we told senators in another letter, there are several civil rights bills that are long overdue for Senate passage — and which we believe have the support necessary to pass this year.

This includes the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, which represents a significant advance forward in protecting our democracy from future attacks on presidential elections. It builds on bipartisan legislation that has already passed the House and contains important reforms to modernize the process for certifying and counting electoral votes. But of course, this is just the beginning: Congress must also address urgent threats to voting rights for people of color across the country and pass robust federal voting rights protections.

We are also calling for passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, which the Senate is considering this week. This legislation would repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA) and codify the Supreme Court’s rulings in United States v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which found that DOMA’s provisions were unenforceable. We believe it is time for the Senate to ensure lasting stability and certainty to married couples at the federal and state levels and for lawmakers to state unequivocally that the debate over marriage equality is finished.

In addition, the Senate must finally pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) to protect pregnant workers nationwide — as pregnancy discrimination is an ongoing issue that disproportionately harms Black and Latina workers in low-paid, inflexible jobs, including frontline workers hailed as essential during the pandemic. The PWFA passed the House and the Senate HELP Committee with overwhelming bipartisan support and is now ready to pass the full chamber. We joined more than 100 organizations calling on Majority Leader Schumer to get this done.

And we also need an extension of the child tax credit (CTC), which would significantly reduce child poverty and improve economic mobility, particularly for families of color, without reducing workforce participation. The temporary expansion included in the American Rescue Plan Act benefited millions of families and reduced the child poverty rate to a record low of 5.2 percent, but these gains evaporated as soon as the monthly CTC payments ended. In a new letter, we joined with other legacy civil rights organizations calling on lawmakers to pass an expansion of the CTC and to refrain from including corporate tax breaks in any end-of-year legislation that does not also include an expanded CTC.

Of course, lawmakers must also act urgently to address legal relief for Dreamers, i.e., immigrants who came to the United States as children but who lack legal certainty. They have long had bipartisan support in Congress and among the public, but recent litigation has only added to the uncertainty they face in the long term.

This is far from an exhaustive list of legislation that Congress can and should pass this year.

Confirm nominees to key federal agencies.

Finally, in addition to staffing our federal courts and passing meaningful legislation, the Senate needs to confirm several priority executive branch nominations before the end of this Congress. They include:

  • Kalpana Kotagal, nominated to serve as commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Kotagal is an exceptionally qualified civil rights lawyer who has dedicated the bulk of her career to helping everyday working people enforce their rights under federal employment and anti-discrimination laws. Her knowledge of the law and her experience addressing systemic discrimination make her an outstanding choice to help lead the EEOC in its work to prevent and remedy unlawful employment discrimination and to promote equal opportunity in the workplace. Kotagal’s confirmation will alleviate the gridlock that has recently prevented the EEOC from carrying out a robust anti-discrimination agenda.
  • Gigi Sohn, nominated to serve as commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Sohn has dedicated herself to the public interest throughout her career, including her service on the Presidential Advisory Commission on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, her advocacy for policies that promote diversity and competition in the non-profit sector, and her time at the FCC as a senior counselor to the chairman. If confirmed, she would be the FCC’s first openly LGBTQ commissioner.
  • David Uejio, nominated to serve as assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Uejio has extensive expertise in fair lending and organizational management and a distinguished track record of public service, most recently as Acting Associate Director for Supervision, Enforcement, and Fair Lending at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As the head of FHEO, he would play a key role in civil rights enforcement, setting policy throughout the agency and protecting communities across the country from housing discrimination.

This list of pending nominees, like the list of priority legislation, is far from exhaustive. And we recognize that senators have a great deal of business before them. But the nominees and bills noted above are of particular importance to the civil and human rights movement and to the communities we represent. We strongly urge Senate leadership to utilize all resources at their disposal and to schedule the floor time necessary for these civil and human rights priorities in the coming weeks.