President Obama pledged this week to take executive action if Congress fails to pass certain items on his legislative agenda, but so far the strategy of bypassing Congress doesn’t extend to the issue of barring discrimination against LGBT workers.
In public remarks before a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Obama said he intends to make clear that Congress isn’t the only path for policy change, saying “we are not just going to be waiting for legislation” to provide aid to Americans.
“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” Obama said. “And I can use that pen to sign executive orders, and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward in helping to make sure our kids are getting the best education possible, and making sure that our businesses are getting the kind of support and help they need to grow and advance to make sure that people are getting the skills that they need to get those jobs that our businesses are creating.”
That situation could apply to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would bar most employers from engaging in anti-LGBT workplace discrimination. Although the bill passed the Senate last year on a bipartisan basis, it has languished in the House. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he opposes the legislation.
LGBT advocates are jumping on Obama’s remarks as another opportunity to push him to sign the executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization “certainly hope[s]” the president’s words — and similar words from other administration officials — indicates Obama is preparing to take action to institute LGBT non-discrimination protections.
“The White House’s statements were a perfect description of the executive order that hardworking LGBT Americans need,” Sainz said.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said the “time is right for more action” in the wake of Obama’s words that he’ll use his pen to advance his agenda.
“If politics is local, then all the administration has to do is take a look at what Virginia’s new Gov. Terry McAuliffe did as his first act — signing an executive order that protects LGBT state employees from discrimination,” Carey said. “With one stroke of his pen, the president can immediately improve the lives of LGBT people across the country; we encourage him to use it.”
But the White House maintains the legislative route to protecting LGBT workers from discrimination is the path it prefers.
Under questioning from the Washington Blade, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday he doesn’t “have any change or update” from the administration’s previously stated preference for passage of ENDA over an executive order prohibiting LGBT discrimination among federal contractors.
“So our view has always been that the best way to address this important matter is through broad, comprehensive employment non-discrimination legislation,” Carney said. “And we support action on that legislation in the House so that the president can sign it.”
Asked by another reporter why the president would take executive action to advance his policies on issues such as gun control and education, but not on LGBT discrimination, Carney reiterated the administration’s position.
“We are very focused on the potential for further action in the Congress — for the progress that we’ve seen around the country and in Congress in recognizing that these are fundamental rights that ought to be recognized,” Carney said. “And we expect that Congress will, as I said, get on the road toward progress that so many in this country have been traveling on these issues.”
Obama’s words this week mark a significant change in tone from what he’s previously said on the issue of bypassing Congress and issuing executive orders to enact new policy.
In November during a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in San Francisco, Obama was heckled by an audience member who kept shouting “executive order.” Although the protester didn’t make clear on what issue he was seeking executive action, Obama responded that his belief generally is that he shouldn’t bypass Congress.
“There is no shortcut to politics,” Obama said. “And there’s no shortcut to democracy. And we have to win on the merits of the argument with the American people. As laborious as it seems sometimes, as much misinformation as there is out there sometimes, as frustrating as it may be sometimes, what we have to do is just keep on going, keep on pushing.”
The reason for the change in tone could be attributable to a new face on the White House staff. John Podesta has recently joined the staff as a counselor to Obama. During his time building the Center for American Progress as its founder, Podesta was a strong advocate of use of executive power by the president.
In a 2010 report titled, “The Power of the President: Recommendations to Advance Positive Change,” Podesta advocates for the use of executive power for Obama to advance job creation and economic competitiveness and to improve education, health care and security.
“Concentrating on executive powers presents a real opportunity for the Obama administration to turn its focus away from a divided Congress and the unappetizing process of making legislative sausage,” Podesta writes. “Instead, the administration can focus on the president’s ability to deliver results for the American people on the things that matter most to them.”
Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, insisted that Obama has asserted he has the prerogative to exercise executive authority, saying she supports him doing so for LGBT workers.
“I think his comments this week and comments from others who are senior advisers at the White House that he will act if Congress doesn’t is in keeping with what he has said in his first term and in the past year in his second term,” Stachelberg said. “He has been clear that he wants to work with Congress on issues that challenge our country, but where and when Congress won’t act, he will use the authority that he has.”
Obama will likely flesh out what he intends to pursue through executive action during his annual State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 28. Although the details of the speech are under wraps, Obama has already disclosed he’ll talk about mobilizing the country around a national mission of ensuring the economy offers all hardworking Americans a fair shot at success.
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, identified another item that Obama should bring up during the State of the Union speech: pushing the U.S. House to finish the job on ENDA.
“We will keep pushing for an ENDA vote in the House of Representatives in 2014, and we hope the president will use the State of the Union Address to call for that vote, but the very best thing he can do right now is lead by example and sign the executive order,” Almeida said.
Advocates of workplace protections pushed Obama to sign the directive prior to his campaign to win a second term, but the White House announced it wouldn’t happen at that time. Despite a presumption the president would sign the measure once re-elected, there was no change in the White House position following Election Day.
After first lady Michelle Obama was heckled during a DNC fundraiser over the executive order, renewed pressure was placed on the White House, and advocates had renewed hopes Obama would announce he would sign the order at the annual Pride reception at the White House. Instead, Obama took the opportunity to renew his call for ENDA passage.
Finally, amid questions over whether Obama would sign the executive order once ENDA made it halfway through Congress and passed the Senate, the White House indicated there was still no change in plans.
Dan Pinello, a political scientist at the City University of New York, didn’t put much stock in the notion that things would change this time around — despite the president’s words.
“My guess is that Obama would not issue an executive order that might unduly upset the business community,” Pinello said. “He’s been fairly deferential to them.”
Pinello added most federal contractors are large enough business entities that they likely have LGBT non-discrimination provisions already in place with regard to LGBT people.
“Thus, there might be significantly diminished returns from such an executive order, especially in light of the antagonism potentially felt by those small contractors who’d feel put upon by the action,” Pinello said. “So I’d be surprised if Obama did it.”