Former Sen. Chuck Hagel has pledged to “move forward expeditiously” on the issue of extending partner benefits to gay service members if confirmed as defense secretary.
During his confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Nebraska Republican reiterated his support for open service and said he would do “everything possible” to extend equal benefits to all military families.
“As I’ve discussed with many of you in our meetings, I am fully committed to implementing the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all, all our service members,” Hagel said in his opening statement.
In written responses to committee questions made public on the same day as the hearing, Hagel promised to move “expeditiously” in response to an inquiry on whether he would ensure that the report from the Pentagon benefits review group is expedited and sent to Congress.
“If confirmed, I will work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue and will inform the appropriate Congressional committees of decisions as they are made,” Hagel writes.
The U.S. military is prohibited from offering major partner benefits — such as health and pension benefits — to gay troops because of the Defense of Marriage Act and other laws, but other benefits — like military ID cards, joint duty assignments, access to family programs, legal services and housing — could be extended administratively at any time under secretarial directive.
Since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, Pentagon officials have consistently said they’ve been reviewing the benefits that could be extended to gay service members. However, no action has been taken.
Hagel addressed this ongoing review at the Pentagon in response to a question on the status of this report and when the group is expected to produce it.
“I understand that this review is not taking the form of a report, per se, but has involved assembling detailed information on individual benefits (including whether each such benefit might be made available under current law, and options for how to do so) to support decision making by the senior civilian and military leadership of the Department, and also that those decisions are currently under active consideration,” Hagel wrote. “If confirmed, I will review the work that has been undertaken during the course of the benefits review and will work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue.”
Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, praised Hagel for promising leadership on issues important to gay service members.
“After two years of equivocation and delay by Pentagon leadership, it is gratifying to see Sen. Hagel show the kind of clear, unambiguous support for our service members and their families we saw today,” Robinson said. “It is an historic day when issues critical to gay and lesbian service members and their families take center stage in a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense.”
But LGBT issues related to the military received scant attention during the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, which lasted about eights hours. Republican committee members, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), instead focused on past comments Hagel made suggesting that he’s anti-Israel and is lenient on Iran. Democratic senators like Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) drew attention to the fact that Hagel would be the first secretary of defense who once served as an enlisted soldier in the Army.
Other members asked him about military programs important to their states, such as Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who asked Hagel about his commitment to naval programs and cyber warfare.
But in some portions, LGBT issues were referenced. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she needs a “strong commitment” from Hagel that he’ll work to extend partner benefits for gay service members —in addition to confronting sexual assault against women, referencing reports that there are 19,000 such incidents in the military each year — and said the status quo won’t be acceptable.
“Well, you have my complete commitment on that,” Hagel said. “I’ve made that commitment to members of the committee that I’ve spoken to. I mentioned that point in my opening statement, if you recall.”
Gillibrand said she had already spoken to Hagel privately about these issues and was submitting a question to him for the record.
Another point of discussion relevant to LGBT service members took place when Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) asked about the “conscience” provision that was signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year 2013 Defense Authorization Act and whether Hagel would ensure that language won’t lead to discrimination against gay troops.
“Absolutely,” Hagel replied. “I will faithfully and diligently enforce our laws. All men and women deserve the same rights, and I can assure you that would be a high priority.”
But that response seemed to trouble Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss), who followed up at the start of his questioning by asking Hagel whether he believes a military chaplain can opt out of officiating over same-sex weddings. Hagel at first noted that same-sex marriage is legal in nine states, but Wicker sought additional clarification over whether a chaplain could bow out of those ceremonies.
“Certainly,” Hagel replied. “But what we don’t want, though — Sen. Udall’s point is — someone being denied to be married in a chapel or a facility.”
Prior to the start of the hearing, a female protester apparently affiliated with GetEQUAL held a sign, reading, “We Serve Equally; We Deserve Equality,” and shouted at Hagel to make good on his promise to extend partner benefits to gay troops. She was escorted out by Capitol Police.
The issue of outstanding benefits for gay troops has received significant attention recently in the wake of a spousal club at the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina refusing to admit Ashley Broadway, the spouse of lesbian soldier Lt. Col. Heather Mack. The club, which initially said Broadway was unable to join because she lacked a military ID, ultimately granted Broadway full membership.
Still, groups such as OutServe-SLDN and the Human Rights Campaign have called on outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to take action on the benefits issue before his retirement.
Earlier this week, Sens. Gillibrand and Jeanne Shaheen, who are both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter to Panetta asking him to “extend as many benefits as possible to LGBT members’ families.”
“Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a critical step to ensuring our military retains all the best and brightest and does not discriminate against any Americans,” the senators write. “But, the lack of equal benefits undermines those service members whose families are denied the programs offered for military families.”
Hagel’s questionnaire responses build off a commitment he expressed earlier in a Jan. 14 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer in which he said he supports “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and would “do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
After the hearing, OutServe-SLDN’s Robinson expressed disappointment in a statement that the issue of non-discrimination for LGBT service members wasn’t addressed. Gay service members currently have no recourse outside of their chain of command for claims of discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation.
“It’s time for our nation’s military leaders to send a clear message that relegating LGBT service members to second-class status is no longer acceptable,” Robinson said. “If Sen. Hagel is confirmed, he must use his authority to ban discrimination and guarantee equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members of the military.”
The Hagel nomination has been controversial within the LGBT community because of his poor voting record on LGBT issues while a U.S. senator from Nebraska and because he called then-ambassadorial nominee James Hormel in 1998 “openly aggressively gay.” Hagel has since apologized for the anti-gay remarks and the former ambassador supports his confirmation.
UPDATE: This posting has been edited for clarity and updated with additional comments from Hagel and senators.