September 10, 2014 at 10:19 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
House panel rejects spousal benefits for gay veterans
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The U.S. House voted down an amendment that would ensured spousal benefits flow to gay veterans (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

A panel in the Republican-controlled U.S. House on Wednesday rejected a measure that would have enabled veterans with same-sex spouses to receive partner benefits wherever they live in the country.

By a 12-13 vote, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs failed to pass an amendment from Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) along the lines of the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, legislation that would change Title 38 of the U.S. Code to ensure the flow of spousal benefits to gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans.

Introducing the amendment, Titus said the measure was intended to end an injustice affecting thousands of veterans who are being denied crucial benefits based on their sexual orientation and state of residence.

“This inequality for those who wore the uniform of the United States armed forces and their families is unacceptable,” Titus said.

Although the vote was a largely along party lines with Republicans voting “no” and Democrats voting “yes,” Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, was the only Republican who broke with his party to vote “yes” on the amendment. All votes cast against the amendment were from Republicans.

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he opposed the amendment because it would interfere with states that have enacted laws related to marriage.

“Deference to the state is not motivated by hostility, it is motivated by adherence to the Constitution,” Miller said. “As such, I believe that it is not appropriate to usurp the states’ power to democratically define marriage for their citizenry — not for personal belief, and not for bureaucratic convenience.”

In his remarks, Miller invoked a recent federal court decision upholding Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage as evidence that state laws are still standing that restrict marriage to one man, one woman. That decision upholding Lousiana’s marriage ban is one among more than 35 other rulings that have overturned prohibitions on same-sex marriage in other states.

After the Supreme Court ruled against Defense of Marriage Act, the Obama administration began extending spousal benefits to individuals in same-sex marriages throughout the country for the most part regardless whether the state in which reside recognize their union.

But a year after the ruling, the administration deemed that because Section 103(c) of Title 38 of the U.S. Code — which governs veterans benefits — looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, in determining whether a couple is married, it could not afford spousal benefits to veterans in same-sex marriages if they live in a non-marriage equality state.

Although the administration has developed a workaround for some benefits, it still won’t afford important benefits like ChampVA (health care for spouses of disabled veterans), higher disability compensation for disabled veterans with dependents, full access to VA home loans and many survivor benefits for widows.

Titus’ amendment was intended for a bill introduced by Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) called the Our Vets Deserve Better Act, which would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to meet with existing VA health care advisory committees no later than 30 days following the bill’s enactment. After the Titus amendment failed, Miller removed the legislation from the agenda at that committee meeting.

One notable Republican who voted “no” on the amendment was Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), who’s considered one of four sitting House Republicans to support marriage equality.

Although he said “the current system is not fair” for gay veterans, Jolly said he couldn’t bring himself to support the amendment because he felt it was non-germane to the larger bill.

“Frankly, if I’m Mr. Heck today, I’m wondering what the Heck has happened to my bill,” Jolly said. “Legislation I introduced on advisory panels is going to be turned into legislation to carry matters related to same-sex benefits. And on germaneness, I have a concern. I’m certainly not going to raise a point of order, but I have hard time getting to ‘yes’ on this simply because this is not the Heck bill.”

Despite his “no” vote, Jolly called for another committee markup or some other kind of forum in which the full committee could debate the measure as a standalone bill.

Also voting “no” on the amendment was Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), another co-sponsor of ENDA. He’s set to attend the upcoming annual dinner for the National Log Cabin Republicans in D.C. on September 17.

But a number of Democrats spoke out in support of the amendment, including Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), one of the openly gay members of Congress, and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas).

Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), another openly gay member of Congress who’s running to become the next governor of Maine, also spoke in favor of the measure on the basis that it would afford crucial benefits to veterans in same-sex marriages.

“Access to those benefits should not be conditional upon who a veterans is married to, what state they got married in,” Michaud said. “This is common-sense measure that shows our respect and gratitude to all of our veterans.”

Lori Hensic, director of research and policy for the LGBT military group known as the American Military Partner Association, criticized lawmakers who rejected the bill.

“The ability of our nation’s veterans, no matter their sexual orientation, to access their earned benefits should be an issue that transcends partisan politics,” Hensic said. “It’s a sad reflection on the state of our Congress when our elected officials cannot put aside their differences to end this discrimination.”

Read the full opening remarks from Titus as before introduced the amendment below:

“The amendment filed is based on H.R. 2529, the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, legislation I introduced over a year ago to address the injustice facing thousands of veteran families across the country currently being denied federal benefits based on their state of residence.

“In the Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. USA, the highest court in the land ruled that legally-married same sex couples could not be denied federal benefits.

“Nearly a year after that ruling, the Veterans Administration, through consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice, announced that veterans living in states where their marriage is not recognized would be denied access to the full range of federal benefits they have earned and deserve.

“This inequality for those who wore the uniform of the United States Armed Services and their families is unacceptable, and we, as the committee charged with overseeing the laws to serve their needs, have a duty to act.

“In March of this year, the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a legislative hearing on my legislation.

“Not a single witness testified in opposition of this measure.

“I repeat, not a single witness came forward to oppose this change.

“The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America testified that, “IAVA supports equitable treatment of all veterans and their families and supports the changes this legislation seeks to make to Title 38.”

“The Veterans of Foreign Wars, VetsFirst, and AMVETS echoed this sentiment in their endorsement of the bill.

“Even the VA has endorsed changing this policy.

“The amendment simply ensures that legally-married veterans can apply for the benefits they have earned by removing language currently found in Title 38 that unintentionally bars that access for legally-married, same-sex couples based on laws of the state in which they reside.

“The current language has resulted in legally-married couples being discriminated against by the country they fought to protect. They don’t wear the uniform of a state, they wear the uniform of the federal government. If they live in California, they can get benefits. But if they move to Texas, then they lose those benefits. They live in New York, they get those benefits. But if they move to Florida, they lose those benefits.

“As I have said many times, my legislation, and this amendment, does not change the laws of any state, and enactment of this language will have no impact on state laws barring marriage equality.

“This amendment is not about supporting same-sex marriage and it’s not about forcing states to change their policies, it’s about giving all of our veterans what they deserve.

“Our veterans did not fight for a state – they fought for the United States.

“This is simply an issue of fairness to the brave men and women, and their families who serve this nation.

“I ask my colleagues to think about the veterans in your state. If you live in a state that does not recognize their marriage, you have a chance today, right now, to provide them the benefits they earned while serving our nation in uniform. Our committee has worked tirelessly in a bipartisan way throughout this Congress to ensure that ALL veterans have access to the benefits they have earned. Right now, you have the chance to continue our bipartisan efforts.

“I ask you to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘is this fair to my veterans?’

“Better yet, look into the eye of a veteran and ask, ‘is this fair?’ We have praised the heroism, the courage, the valor of our veterans throughout the last two years. I ask you to have one ounce of the courage they have and vote today to give all of our veterans’ equal rights.”

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

  • El Dorado

    So much for those gays that say that being gay doesn’t matter anymore in America. When will you learn that you will have to fight for everything most others take for granted and the struggle really never ends? Despite the advances of African-Americans they still have always to be on guard to make sure those advances aren’t reversed or watered down.

    Even if the SCOTUS were to uphold marriage equality based on equal protection clauses in the Constitution, which should be a no-brainer, social conservatives will continue to oppose it much like they do abortion. Social conservatives don’t want to accept anything that may lead to the advancement of the rights of gay Americans let alone anything that will lead to the recognition of gays as a minority class.

    Even if nationwide marriage equality becomes a reality soon, we still have a long way to go in outlawing job, housing, public accommodation and services discrimination. We can’t even agree among ourselves on how such laws should be written let alone be united enough to push for it until it happens. Look at ENDA and the never-ending excuses why sectors of our own community try to derail it.

    You take too much for granted assuming this country will put gay equality on the fast-track as a priority. Polls indicating majority support have done really nothing to get our legislative priorities voted on let alone approved! People may say such discrimination is wrong but really do little if anything about it.

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