The Magazine

Marilyn's Amendment

The first-term congresswoman who's taking the lead against same-sex marriage.

Mar 1, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 24 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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CONGRESSWOMAN Marilyn Musgrave, a first-term Republican from rural eastern Colorado, is, in the words of one reporter, "taking freshman feistiness to a new level." Dressed in a raspberry-colored suit, with simple blond hair framing a pretty face, Musgrave hardly comes across as aggressive. Yet she takes the description as a compliment.

"Seniority is the name of the game here," she says, "but almost anybody you talk to . . . at town meetings or at meetings of members of your party, whether you're Republican or Democratic, [will say they're] really tired of the good old boys' club. It's funny, because I've never been a feminist. . . . But I'm happy to be known as the feisty freshman, especially at my age. Feisty sounds really good." Musgrave, a grandmother, is 55.

Since coming to Washington in 2002, Musgrave has challenged House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), House speaker Dennis Hastert, and even President Bush on a number of budgetary issues, burnishing her reputation as an uncompromising fiscal conservative.

But these days, Musgrave is best known as the author of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which states: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups." President Bush is expected to endorse a marriage amendment in the near future. He told 250 legislators at the GOP Conference retreat in Philadelphia, January 28-31, that he specifically supported "Marilyn's language."

Introduced in May 2003 as House Joint Resolution 56, the amendment has recently become a source of dispute. Some supporters of homosexual marriage argue that the second sentence would ban civil unions, but Musgrave says her amendment is worded so as to prevent same-sex marriage, but not prohibit state legislatures from recognizing other forms of union. "The second sentence is reining in state and federal courts. It would allow for civil unions to be enacted by the state legislatures, so it's very respectful of states' rights," she explains. "I do not support civil unions, but I think that those fights are best left to the states."

Although she has not been given a timeline, Musgrave is working with House leaders to arrange a hearing and a floor vote on the amendment this year. The bill is gaining support in the House, with 112 cosponsors at last count. Musgrave and her colleagues admit it will be a long and arduous road but remain optimistic. "I never thought [the amendment] would get any legs, but it could very well be one of the defining issues of the presidential campaign," says Rep. Tom Tancredo, a fellow Colorado Republican. Musgrave adds, "We in the United States are not cavalier about amending the Constitution, but I believe that protecting the institution of marriage is just that important."

Protecting the wallets of hardworking Americans is also close to Musgrave's heart. Just four months into the job, she found herself leading the fight against a proposal by Transportation Committee chairman Don Young to raise the gas tax. Her resistance to the measure--which would raise the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal tax by 8 cents a gallon over 6 years, to partly finance the $375 billion highway bill--resulted in a heated confrontation between the two on the House floor.

Musgrave knew she could be jeopardizing funding for road projects in her district by challenging Young, but she is convinced that there are other ways to finance roads. Musgrave is currently working with the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, to investigate reforms for highway funding and to encourage Young to hold hearings. "Marilyn's got a lot of gumption and is willing to take a tough stand, and there's not a lot of that going around," Myrick says. "She's not from the South, but she's what we'd call a steel magnolia."

Husband Steve, a committed conservative and political junkie, admires his wife's tenacity. He says he could never do what she does, but when the spouses of members of Congress were invited to last month's GOP Conference retreat, Steve, now an insurance agent, attended the break-out session on transportation and got a glimpse of Young in action. "It was interesting for him to sit in a room and see the guy who was yelling at his wife at one time," Musgrave laughs. "I think he really feels confident that I'm up to the task, but knows that every once in a while I may need a shoulder rub for a tension headache."

The couple, who married after their first year at Colorado State University, have four children and five grandchildren. The Musgraves still own a custom hay business in their hometown of Fort Morgan, a farming community of about 9,000. Their sons worked as machine operators growing up, and their daughters helped out with the business as well. Musgrave fondly recalls driving a bale wagon while pregnant with her fourth child. The business, in operation mainly during the summer months, was a good complement to Steve's career as a math and science teacher, and allowed Musgrave to stay at home with their kids. "The best job I've ever had was staying at home and raising my children," Musgrave says.

It was dissatisfaction with the lack of discipline and academic rigor in her children's classrooms, and her support for school choice, that prompted Musgrave to run for public office. In 1990, she was elected to the Fort Morgan School Board, where she served for two years. She was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1994 and the state Senate in 1998. She was one of the legislature's strongest Second Amendment supporters and an advocate of tax cuts. A member of the First Assembly of God, she has not separated her faith from her role as a legislator and sponsored bills opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

When fellow Republican Bob Schaffer announced in November 2001 that he would honor his term-limits pledge and retire from the U.S. House of Representatives, Musgrave ran to replace him, defeating Democratic state senator Stan Matsunaka by 55-42 percent. She now sits on the House committees on Agriculture, Education and the Workforce, and Small Business, and is enjoying the ride so far.

A conviction politician even when it means alienating fellow Republicans, she was the only freshman to vote no on the first round of votes regarding an expensive new prescription drug benefit for Medicare, the federal health insurance for seniors. During the second round, House speaker Dennis Hastert directly lobbied her for her vote, but again, she declined. That night, President Bush called her to ask her for her vote. "I said, 'Mr. President: Love you, pray for you, admire you, you're my hero, but I just can't do it. I'm a no vote.'" Musgrave says the president was a gentleman--he thanked her and undoubtedly went on to the next representative to round up the necessary votes.

Musgrave describes what happened then as providential. As soon as she hung up the phone with the president, the cell phone on her desk started vibrating. It was her 4-year-old grandson, Frankie, calling to say hello. "I picked up my cell phone and this little voice came on," she says. "And I'm not kidding you, I just was overwhelmed with thinking about what we are leaving to our grandchildren, what we're doing to future generations, to our kids and our grandkids, and I felt so good about my no vote."

Erin Montgomery is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.