February 7, 2014 at 11:56 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
6 hints that ENDA exec order may be coming
White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, Gay News, Washington Blade

White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney insists an executive order for LGBT workers is “hypothetical” (Washington Blade photo by Damien Salas).

If you tuned into his daily news conferences, you might get the sense from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that the administration isn’t actively considering an executive order that would bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.

One word that Carney often uses to describe the much sought directive is “hypothetical.”

That’s the word he used on Thursday when asked about the latest piece of evidence the order may be forthcoming — White House counselor John Podesta’s assertion on Bloomberg TV  that the executive order is “under consideration.”

“I don’t have any updates on that hypothetical EO; I can tell you that we strongly support action by the House in keeping with what the Senate did to get the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed into law,” Carney said.

Speaking more to the point of Podesta’s assertion about an LGBT directive, Carney said “we look at and consider a lot things,” which neither confirms nor denies the directive is being discussed in the West Wing.

Instead, Carney took the opportunity to highlight President Obama’s support for ENDA, legislation that would bar employers from discriminating against or firing LGBT workers.

“If you look at the data on this issue — and specifically on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — I think it is overwhelmingly demonstrated that this has the support of the American people across the country,” Carney said. “And as I’ve said again and again, this is — history is moving on this issue in the right direction, and opposing these kinds of things means finding yourself on the wrong side of history.”

The Senate passed ENDA on a bipartisan basis in September by a 64-32 vote. But the bill has seen no movement in the House, where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has continually said he opposes it. Last week, the Washington Blade reported that Boehner told the LGBT Equality Caucus there’s “no way” ENDA will get done this year.

Carney’s characterization of the executive order as hypothetical is riling at least one LGBT advocate, Freedom to Work’s Tico Almeida, who continues to say the directive is anything but hypothetical.

“There was nothing hypothetical about President Obama’s campaign promise to the LGBT community that he would take executive action to combat workplace discrimination at federal contractors,” Almeida told the Blade. “We’ll keep pushing until these workplace protections become a reality. It’s long past time to sign.”

It’s not the first time in recent memory the White House referred to the order as hypothetical. Just last week, he referred to the order as “hypothetical” in response to questioning from the Blade that ended testily.

After the conclusion of the briefing on Thursday, the Washington Blade shouted out to Carney: If the executive order were under consideration would you say so publicly? The White House spokesperson gave no response.

Evidence exists the White House is internally engaged in a process that would likely lead to President Obama signing the executive order. The Washington Blade has identified six hints the order is forthcoming despite the lack of updates in the White House briefing room.

1. Podesta’s comments the executive order is ‘under consideration’

The stongest evidence is Podesta — a known proponent of U.S. presidents taking executive action from his previous work heading the Center for American Progress  — unequivocally saying just last week the LGBT executive order is “under consideration” when asked about it by Bloomberg News.

“Well, what he said in the State of the Union was he was going to require federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of $10.10,” Podesta said. “The order that you’re talking about is under consideration at the White House. We’re looking at that.”

Asked by Bloomberg what Obama is likely to do, Podesta said, “Well, you know, I’m not going to prejudge that.” Podesta said there’s no good case for workplace discrimination.

2. DNC Treasurer e-mail saying ‘process’ holding up directive

Along those lines is an e-mail from Andy Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, to LGBT donors on an off-the-record listserv indicating everyone in the administration is in favor of the executive order and the only thing holding it up is a “process.” The email, dated May 30, 2013, was leaked to the Washington Blade last year.

“I have spoken to people in an attempt to understand better myself what the delay is — and to lobby for its getting done,” Tobias wrote. “Those people have left me satisfied that our frustration is heard, that the hold-up is not staffers who oppose our rights but a process that is broader than just this one very important and long delayed agenda item.”

Tobias, who’s gay, indicates later in the email he’s convinced the order will happen at some point, noting other LGBT achievements and saying, “But they got done and this will get done too.“

3. White House continues to ‘study’ issue

In April 2012, when Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett met with LGBT advocates and told them the executive order wouldn’t happen at this time, one media report suggested forward movement was still happening.

ThinkProgress published a piece quoting Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external relations at the Center for American Progress, saying instead of issuing the order the White House Council of Economic Advisers “will launch a study to better understand workplace discrimination.”

When asked about that quote by the Washington Blade close to the one-year anniversary of that meeting, White House spokesperson Shin Inouye said, “We continue to study the issue.” Sources familiar with the meeting said Jarrett didn’t say CEA would conduct the study, but noted there are multiple approaches and gave CEA as an example.

The White House has since declined to give more detail on the nature of the study — such as its purpose or whether it’s being done as a formal commission or an informal examination — nor say when it’ll be complete.

4. Obama’s 2008 campaign promise

LGBT advocates — including at Freedom to Work and the Human Rights Campaign — continue to say President Obama promised to sign the executive order when competing against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president.

Their evidence it’s a campaign promise: an apparent 2008 questionnaire from the GLBT Houston Political Caucus that emerged in 2012 during Obama’s re-election campaign. Although it says nothing explicit about an executive order, Obama was asked if he supports a formal written policy against LGBT discrimination for federal contractors. The response was simply “yes.”

The White House has dodged when asked to comment on whether the president believes the order is a campaign promise. Noel Freeman, current president of the caucus, told the Blade he’s unable to verify the authenticity of the questionnaire.

5. Labor, Justice departments OK exec order: sources

Back when the idea of an executive order was gaining ground prior to the 2012 election, sources close to the administration told the Blade the Labor and Justice departments had green-lighted the directive, saying it could be implemented if the president signed it.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is slated to give the keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign’s gala in New York City on Saturday. The content of his speech is thus far under wraps, but given the Justice Department’s work on this issue, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he’ll make an announcement regarding the executive order.

6. Obama saying he’ll use his pen if Congress fails to act

The last piece of evidence suggesting an order may be forthcoming: President Onama’s declaration during the State of the Union address that he’ll take executive action if Congress refuses to act on his agenda.

“America does not stand still — and neither will I,” Obama said. “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Obama has already acted on this threat by pledging to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay employees a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour.

Given the media attention on the LGBT executive order, it stands to reason that issuing the order if Congress doesn’t move forward with ENDA has crossed Obama’s mind.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • Gosh, I hope so. I don’t think they grasp how personally hypocritical it appears and what a politically goofy example the WH is projecting.

    The Prez is the titular BOSS/CEO of federal contracts. If he won’t end anti-LGBT workplace discrimination on his own executive ‘turf’ — where he can so easily do so — why would wavering Republicans and blue dog Democrats think they’re politically save to vote for a full ENDA?

  • Thank you, Chris, for preparing this careful update in the face of unrelenting secrecy from the Obama administration. Back when ENDA seemed about to pass, there was similar secrecy from Congress. Eventually, any hope for passage disappeared.

    The bill is finally making progress again. John Boehner seems to be the holdup now, and if he won’t support the Constitutional principle of equality, then he isn’t qualified for his position and he needs to go.

    On the executive order, the lack of communication and action are baffling to me. There was little backlash when President Obama signed an executive order protecting LGBT students from bullying and discrimination, so why the hesitancy with this similar measure? There’s no need for a study. I think the Administration would move much more quickly if not for the widespread misconception that LGBT job discrimination is already prohibited at the federal level. Public education on this is essential.

    The secrecy would be unnecessary if the President expected to sign an ENDA-like executive order anytime soon. In fact, we’d be seeing a buildup leading to the unveiling. My suspicion is that the Administration is keeping advocates in the dark because, if people knew how little was being done, there would be open rebellion and the Democrats would lose many deep-pocketed donors. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see why this executive order, or indeed ENDA itself, should be so difficult.

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