New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, the top Democrat on the powerful House Rules Committee and the only microbiologist in the Congress, died Friday at a Washington hospital just days after being injured in a fall at home, her congressional office said.
She was 88.
Known as one of the most liberal members of Congress, Slaughter played an integral part of the Violence Against Women Act, the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act and writing President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“To have met Louise Slaughter is to have known a force of nature,” her chief of staff, Liam Fitzsimmons, said Friday.
Originally from Lynch, Kentucky, Slaughter brought her dedication to public health and her southern drawl all the way to Washington in 1986. Slaughter quickly earned a reputation. As a freshman Slaughter said her colleagues would “just smile and say, 'Oh, you're the one from New York who doesn't sound like it.’”
Slaughter was first elected to Congress in 1986 after four years in the New York State Assembly.
With a master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Kentucky, Slaughter focused on public health issues. In 1993, Slaughter funneled $500 million to the National Institute of Health for breast cancer research. In 1994, she ensured that all research be done on minorities and women, as opposed to just men, as it had been in the past.
Slaughter co-authored the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. The measure helps the investigations and prosecutions of crimes against women. During the law’s reauthorization in 2013, Slaughter said “Today’s signing of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization into law gives women and all victims of domestic violence across America the peace of mind that their government will not abandon them in their time of need.”
Slaughter’s younger sister, Virginia, caught double pneumonia and died. Her sister’s death persuaded Slaughter to focus on health policy while in Congress.
“That we have children coming into this world already polluted, at the same time we don't know what the effects of that pollution will be on their mental and physical development, is both bad policy and immorally wrong,” Slaughter said.
Until the end, Slaughter blamed the coal-infused air of Harlan County, KY for her sister’s demise.
Slaughter was the first female elected to Congress from western New York. Slaughter also served as the first chairwoman of the House Rules Committee from. She had been the top Democrat on the panel in recent years.
Slaughter was the daughter of a blacksmith. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noted that Slaughter never forgot that in her work on Capitol Hill.
Slaughter was born Louise McIntosh and was a distant relative of American folk life hero Daniel Boone. The mother of three daughters, Slaughter once quipped “Our girls have learned that sweat is sexy, brawn is beautiful and a little dirt never hurt anyone.”
She married Bob Slaughter in 1957. They were married for 57 years until his death in 2014. Her husband used to drive the Congresswoman back and forth from the district in upstate New York to Washington until he passed away. Bob Slaughter would often sit in on meetings of the House Rules Committee.
In, 2014, Slaughter eked out a victory in the closest race of her political career. She defeated Republican Mark Assini by a margin of 869 votes. She planned to run for reelection this year.
Slaughter authored the STOCK Act (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge), which barred insider trading in Congress by lawmakers, staff and other officials including the president. The measure became law on April 4, 2012. Ethics watchdogs regard the law of the most-significant pieces of ethics legislation in years.
During her career on the Rules Committee, Slaughter famously tangled with Republicans.
During one Rules Committee hearing in 2012 to fund transportation projects, Slaughter argued that the GOP plan to split the 1,000-plus page bill into three pieces demonstrated a lack of transparency. She traded barbs with then-Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.
“If the bill was a mistake, then why didn’t we do it in three parts in the first place?”
“I didn’t say it was a mistake,” Dreier responded. “It’s now an opportunity for members to amend the legislation.”
“Nice try,” Slaughter said.
“Thank you,” Dreier replied sarcastically.
In 1991, Slaughter joined six of her fellow women in the House to protest the Senate confirmation vote for the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. They led the push to allow law professor Anita Hill to testify before Congress about her sexual harassment allegations against Thomas.
The posse of female lawmakers tried to walk into the weekly Senate Democratic caucus luncheon off the chamber floor. But they were barred from entering despite multiple knocks at the door.
“We were told that nobody ever gets in there,” Slaughter told The New York Times. “Certainly not women from the House.”
After their protest caused a stir, then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) eventually met with the women following the luncheon.
A talented vocalist, Slaughter sang with Tinker Baggerly and his orchestra when they performed gigs at semi-formals and dances around Lexington during her time at the University of Kentucky
“I could make a turnip cry,” Slaughter said of her crooning talent. In 2013, Congress hurtled toward a government shutdown. Slaughter relied on her musical training to criticize Republican dithering as the funding deadline approached.
“Old sheet music back in the 1930s and 1940s used to have a notation printed across the top,” said Slaughter. “It would say ‘vamp til ready.’”
In the big band and swing eras, a “vamp” was a series of repetitive, symmetrical bars of notes. They’re often the recognizable “hook” of a number. Vamps were commonplace back when names like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey led big bands. The musicians would simply play the same music over and over again waiting for the vocalist to jump in as they chatted with the crowd. Once the vocalist was ready, the musicians would dive in with the rest of the tune. Hence the term “vamp ‘til ready.”
Slaughter frequently accused Republicans of wasting time, simply “vamping ‘til ready” as precious days slipped off the calendar.
Slaughter was a key player in the Democrats push to approve the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010. Slaughter was a fierce proponent of reproductive rights. In November, 2009, New York Democrat refused to chair the Rules Committee hearing prepping Obamacare for the floor after learning that then-Speaker Pelosi demanded the panel make a sole, substantive amendment in order. The amendment was the “Stupak amendment,” named after then-Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. The Stupak amendment enhanced a firewall prohibiting the use of federal dollars to pay for abortions. Pelosi’s decision to include the Stupak amendment proved key to the passage of Obamacare. The amendment courted the votes of conservative and pro-life Democrats.
The Senate found itself in a quandary after the House approved the initial health care package in late 2009. House Democrats fumed as Senate Democrats wrestled with arcane procedure to find a path to approve Obamacare.
“I think the Red Queen wrote those rules over there,” declared Slaughter of the Senate.
Republicans heaped grief on Slaughter in March, 2010 during the final steps toward approving Obamacare. Democrats tinkered with House custom in order to get the final version of Obamacare on the floor and through the Rules Committee. Since Slaughter chaired the Rules Committee, Republicans christened the parliamentary chicanery the “Slaughter Solution,” pirating the Congresswoman’s married surname.
After a public firestorm Democrats abandoned the parliamentary sleight-of-hand and handled the bill the bill in the committee the old-fashioned way.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Friday ordered the flags at the Capitol complex to be flown at half-staff in her honor.