March 18, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Nearly 200 lawmakers seek action from Obama for LGBT workers
Steny Hoyer, Maryland, United States House of Representatives, gay news, Washington Blade, Democratic Party, U.S. Congress

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was the highest-ranking congressman to call for the ENDA executive order. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As legislation to protect LGBT workers from discrimination continues to languish in the U.S. House, an unprecedented number of nearly 200 lawmakers on Tuesday — including members of House Democratic leadership — called on President Obama to take administrative action.

In a letter dated March 18, 148 House members and 47 senators — making for a total of 195 lawmakers — urged Obama to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as part of his plan for a “Year of Action” in 2014.

“As we continue to work towards final passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) with strong bipartisan support, we urge you to take action now to protection millions of workers across the country from the threat of discrimination simply because of who they are or who they love,” the letter says. “We are committed to doing all that we can in Congress to get ENDA to your desk this year; however, there is no reason you cannot immediately act by taking this important step.”

The letter says “time is of an essence” for a signature on the executive order because even when that happens, a process that “will take many months, if not longer” to implement the directive fully will be necessary.

In the House, the letter was circulated by the LGBT Equality Caucus along with Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.), while ENDA’s chief sponsor in the Senate Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) circulated the letter in that chamber with Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

It’s not the first time members of Congress have penned their names to a letter calling on Obama to take administrative action to protect LGBT workers from discrimination. In 2011, Pallone and Capps led an effort to sign a similar letter, which at the time was signed by 72 House members. In 2013, they circulated another letter on the issue signed by 110 House members as Merkley submitted yet another missive signed by 37 senators.

The series of letters from lawmakers over the course of recent years — in addition to regular questioning on the issue for White House Press Secretary Jay Carney — have been to Obama on the executive order as LGBT advocates have pressed for it for some time.

But the latest missive has more lawmakers calling for the executive order than the 2013 letter and, for the first time, has members of Democratic leadership as signatories: House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). The Blade first reported Hoyer would sign the letter on Monday.

Although House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has publicly said she supports the executive order as far back as 2011 she didn’t sign the letter. Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, said his boss rarely signs group letters and would raise the issue in a private missive to Obama.

Also missing from the letter is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who also gave his green light for the potential directive in January. Reid’s office indicated that he doesn’t typically sign member letters.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic National Committee, also didn’t pen her name to the letter. Last week, sources told the Blade she had discouraged members from signing previous iterations of the letter, but her office called that assertion a “bald-faced lie.” She hasn’t articulated support for the executive order.

Not a single Republican signed the letter. Not one of the 10 Republicans who voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate late last year or any of the six GOP co-sponsors of ENDA in the House penned their name to the missive.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said his organization helped to secure signatures for the letter — and hopes it’ll be the last time the effort is necessary.

“This week, we collaborated with the Equality Caucus for the third time to collect signatures on the 2014 letter to President Obama on the same topic,” Almeida said. “These year-after-year delays from the White House are making this all start to feel like Bill Murray’s ‘Groundhog Day,’ and I really hope we don’t have to push for yet another congressional letter to President Obama in 2015 or 2016 or a letter to President Hillary Clinton in 2017. It’s long past time for President Obama to keep his word and create LGBT workplace protections at the companies that profit from taxpayer-funded contracts.”

The White House has responded to other letters like this one in the past by saying it has no updates to provide on a “hypothetical” executive order protecting LGBT workers. It didn’t respond to comment on the latest letter.

Last week, Carney reiterated Obama’s support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act when asked about the executive order.

“Our view is that Congress ought to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Carney said. “I don’t have any updates for you on possible executive orders. What we’re focused on is on a legislative remedy that would be more comprehensive and that has already seen progress in Congress. So I don’t have a view to express on that particular issue.”

Lawmakers who organized the signature-gathering for the letter in both the House and Senate issued their own words on the importance of Obama signing the executive order.

Merkley said signing the executive order would help ensure LGBT people have access to equal opportunity in the workplace.

“All Americans deserve fairness in the workplace,” Merkley said. “There is no reason to wait any longer to extend non-discrimination policies to federal contractors and protect millions of Americans from being fired for who they are or who they love.”

Capps said in a statement she hopes Obama “will immediately sign an executive order” to protect LGBT workers against discrimination.

“This issue has lingered for far too long and this year, in the president’s year of action, he should take this opportunity to expand employment protections,” Capps said. “Doing so would be a significant and meaningful advancement for LGBT Americans—legally, politically, and culturally. With workers across the country facing discrimination every day, the time is now to make sure workplace discrimination isn’t supported by taxpayer funds.”

As Capps observes, the Williams Institute published a report finding that the executive would extend non-discrimination protections to the estimated 16.5 million employees at federal contractors. (The number of people within this population who are LGBT is estimated to be smaller and between 400,000 and 600,000 people.)

Capps added that she been pushing Obama to sign the executive order for years and “will not stop pushing this issue — it is time for the president to act.”

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

2 Comments
  • "As we continue to work towards final passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) with strong bipartisan support…"

    Has the definition of bipartisan changed recently?

    "Not a single Republican signed the letter. Not one of the 10 Republicans who voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate late last year or any of the six GOP co-sponsors of ENDA in the House penned their name to the missive."

    Further, (6) out of (232) and (10) out of (45) is strong?

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