Categories: NationalPolitics

Boehner on ENDA: ‘I haven’t thought much about it’

House Speaker John Boehner (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) expressed little interest Wednesday in advancing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the wake of an announcement from the White House last week that the Obama administration won’t take action against LGBT workplace discrimination at this time.

Although the administration insists it will work with Congress to pass legislation in lieu of an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers, Boehner seemed unaware of ENDA in response to a question from the Washington Blade, saying, “I haven’t seen the bill. I haven’t thought much about it.”

Asked whether passage of ENDA might alleviate the 8.2 percent unemployment rate if employers were barred from firing LGBT workers, Boehner said “ample laws” are in place and deferred further comment to the House Committee on Education & the Workforce. The committee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“No one should face discrimination in the workforce,” Boehner said. “There are ample laws already in place to deal with this. Having been the chairman of the Education & Workforce Committee, I’m quite familiar with employment law. But if there are further changes that are necessary, I’m sure the committee will look at it.”

Even if Boehner were to bring the bill to a vote, it is unlikely to pass the House where Republican lawmakers hold the majority. ENDA has 161 co-sponsors in the House, far short of the 218 votes that would be needed for passage.

But Boehner’s lack of interest in ENDA raises questions about how the administration expects to move forward with legislation prohibiting LGBT workplace discrimination in the wake of announced plans to work with Congress to the pass the bill instead of taking administrative action and issuing an executive order.

On Monday, White House spokesperson Shin Inouye told the Blade and other media outlets that the “time is right” for a comprehensive legislative approach to passage of ENDA.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said Boehner’s response indicates he doesn’t want to appear to go against the majority of the American public, which backs the idea of legislation protecting LGBT workers from discrimination, according to several polls. Some of those polls show that many Americans remain under the false impression that such a law is already in place.

“I think Speaker Boehner ducked this question from the Washington Blade because he does not want to have to publicly side with the small and decreasing number of Americans who tell pollsters that simply being gay should be grounds for firing a talented and hard working employee,” Almeida said. “Polling data shows that LGBT workplace fairness is quickly becoming a winning wedge issue to use against pro-discrimination politicians who hold antiquated and un-American beliefs.”

Meanwhile, LGBT advocates continue to push President Obama to issue the executive order — despite the announced “no” on the proposed action delivered to them last week — as they call for congressional action in the Democratic-controlled Senate on ENDA. The Blade reported extensively on the importance of a trans-inclusive hearing and markup on the bill last month.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, alluded to the importance of a hearing as he lambasted Boehner for his response to the legislation.

“If the speaker is so familiar with employment law he should know it’s perfectly legal to fire LGBT people in most states,” Cole-Schwartz said. “This attitude is precisely why we need congressional hearings on an inclusive ENDA so the costs of employment discrimination are put on full display.”

No federal law or federal regulation bars employers from firing LGBT workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Firing or discriminating against someone because they’re gay is legal in 29 states; firing or discriminating against someone because they’re transgender is legal in 34 states.

Despite calls for a Senate hearing on ENDA, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee hasn’t yet scheduled a hearing on the legislation.

Justine Sessions, a Senate HELP Committee spokesperson, said this week no plans are in place to hold a hearing on the bill.

“Sen. Harkin is strongly supportive of an inclusive ENDA and looks forward to working with Sen. Merkley and other supporters to advance this important issue,” Sessions said. “The HELP Committee has not planned any hearings beyond the month of May, but I am happy to keep you posted.”

On the same day Boehner punted to the House Committee on Education & the Workforce on ENDA, the committee in fact held a hearing on a related issue: the impact of regulatory and enforcement actions of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

The hearing is significant because it would have been an opportunity to discuss the proposed executive order requiring companies doing business with the U.S. government to have non-discrimination policies protecting LGBT employees. Multiple sources have said the Labor and Justice Departments cleared the measure before sending it to the White House, which announced last week it won’t take action at this time on the directive.

According to a news statement from Freedom to Work, no complaints were voiced about the executive order despite the nature of the hearing.

“Today’s congressional hearing featured three Republican-selected witnesses, including business representatives, and not a single one of them complained about the proposal to add LGBT Americans to the Labor Department’s rules that ensure taxpayer dollars are not squandered by discriminatory contractors who allow anti-gay hostile work environments,” Almeida said. “Not a single Republican member of Congress who attended the hearing complained either.”

In an email to the Blade, Almeida clarified that the executive order didn’t come up in any capacity during the hearing in addition to no one voicing any complaints about it. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat on the committee, was among 72 House members who wrote to Obama urging him to sign the executive order.

Almeida stressed the importance of signing the executive order as the most immediate way to provide protections to LGBT workers.

“Ever since I attended the White House meeting last Wednesday with Valerie Jarrett, White House spokesperson Jay Carney has been ducking questions from the press and making up lame excuses to justify the president’s delay in signing this executive order that Barack Obama promised four years ago he would sign if we helped elect him,” Almeida said. “I agree with the Center for American Progress and the Human Rights Campaign that President Obama should sign the LGBT order now.  To quote the president’s own words, ‘We can’t wait.’”

A transcript of the exchange between Boehner and the Blade follows:

Washington Blade: Mr. Speaker, the White House announced the president won’t issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to have non-discrimination policies in place preventing them from firing workers who are gay or transgender. Instead, they said he wants to work with Congress to pass legislation known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar most employers from discriminating against workers on this basis. What are your views on this legislation and would you be open to bringing it up for a vote?

Boehner: I haven’t seen the bill. I haven’t thought much about it.

Blade: Arguably, among those who are in the 8.2 percent who are unemployed are in that situation because they faced discrimination on this basis. Wouldn’t passage of this legislation —

Boehner: Well, no one should face discrimination in the workforce. There are ample laws already in place to deal with this. Having been the chairman of the Education & Workforce Committee, I’m quite familiar with employment law. But if there are further changes that are necessary, I’m sure the committee will look at it.