House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)’s announcement that is resigning was hailed by social conservatives and LGBT advocates alike, although there’s little indication things would change dramatically with another Republican in charge.
Boehner, who’s served in the U.S. House since 1991 just before the “Gingrich Revolution,” said last week he would resign as speaker and give up his House seat at the end of October amid a stand-off in Congress threatening a shutdown of the U.S. government over continued federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
On the same day he announced his resignation, Boehner said the House would vote on a continuing resolution to keep the U.S. government open with funds at the same level as last year, which means, for the time being, Planned Parenthood would continue to receive government money.
As speaker, Boehner has a dismal record on LGBT rights, although there have been occasions when he’s broken with far-right Republicans on LGBT issues.
Boehner doesn’t have a ranking in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual scorecard because of his position as speaker, but he received a rating of “0” during the time he was minority leader. In the earlier days before he was in leadership, Boehner, an opponent of same-sex marriage, voted in favor of U.S. constitutional amendments that would have banned it throughout the country.
Hilary Rosen, a D.C.-based Democratic activist and lesbian, criticized Boehner on LGBT rights and said she doesn’t see things improving after he’s gone.
“John Boehner has had personal friends and staff members who are gay,” Rosen said. “Yet he never once stuck his neck out to help for fear of his reputation in the caucus. I can’t imagine there will be any difference for LGBT policy until a broader group of Republican Americans start demanding that their party leadership stop kowtowing to the right wing. It will happen eventually if the community keeps pushing.”
Rosen didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking her to identify Boehner’s friends and staffers who are gay.
One key issue that emerged during his four-and-a-half years as House speaker was the U.S. House’s prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful defense in court of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing lawful same-sex marriages.
After former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in February 2011 the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA in court, Boehner convened a meeting of the five-member Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which voted on a 3-2 party-line basis to take up defense of the anti-gay law.
BLAG hired Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general under the George W. Bush administration as lead attorney to defend DOMA. By the time the litigation ran its course all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices ruled 5-4 to strike down DOMA, the cost of defending the law totaled an estimated $2.3 million.
In January 2013, when the Washington Blade asked Boehner whether he supported the continued raising of the cost cap to defend DOMA, which at the time reached $3 million, he replied, “If the Justice Department is not going to enforce the law of the land, the Congress will.”
At the same time BLAG was defending DOMA in court, the House under Boehner voted on at least three occasions to approve amendments on the floor reaffirming the anti-gay law. Just after the Supreme Court agreed to review DOMA, the House at the start of the 113th Congress by a 228-196 vote approved governing rules making clear BLAG has authority to speak for the House before the Supreme Court.
But Boehner’s supporters say he advanced at least one pro-LGBT measure. In 2013, under pressure from Democrats and women’s rights advocates, Boehner allowed a Senate-passed LGBT-inclusive version of the Violence Against Women Act to come to the floor, which passed by a 286-138 vote.
It wasn’t the first time a Republican-controlled chamber of Congress passed LGBT-inclusive legislation. During the 109th Congress, the House passed an LGBT-inclusive version of hate crimes protections as part of a broader bill. But reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act did mark the first time a pro-LGBT bill passed under Boehner.
Speaking to LGBT reporters this week, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz identified VAWA as one thing Boehner achieved for the LGBT community, saying, “He deserves credit for not continuing to block it.”
In his later years as speaker, Boehner’s views on LGBT issues became more mixed. That was best exemplified by his decision to meet with the LGBT Equality Caucus in early 2014, which was first reported by the Blade.
Not even President Obama has met with the LGBT Equality Caucus, making Boehner’s meeting with the openly LGB members of the group a historic moment for the LGBT movement.
But according to Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who was present during the closed-door meeting, Boehner took the opportunity to say there was “no way” the House would bring up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which at the time had passed the Senate under its Democratic majority.
Boehner made his opposition to ENDA clear when the Blade asked him during a news conference shortly after the Senate passed the bill whether he would bring it up for a vote.
“Listen, I understand people have differing opinions on this issue, and I respect those opinions,” Boehner said. “But as someone who’s worked in the employment law area for all my years in the State House and all my years here, I see no basis or no need for this legislation.”
Although Boehner continues to oppose same-sex marriage, he made efforts to stay out of litigation seeking marriage rights for gay couples when it came to the Supreme Court, unlike his actions with DOMA.
Asked by the Blade in February during a news conference whether House Republicans would participate in the litigation, Boehner indicated he expected his caucus to accept the decision from justices.
“I don’t expect that we’re going to weigh in on this,” Boehner said. “The court will make its decision and that’s why they’re there, to be the highest court in the land.”
When congressional Republicans made public their friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold state bans on same-sex marriage, Boehner’s signature wasn’t among the six U.S. senators and 51 U.S. House members who signed it. (However, he later clarified on NBC’s “Meet the Press” he thinks marriage should be left to the states, not the courts, and he would have signed the brief had it been presented to him.)
After the Supreme Court ruled on marriage, Boehner made no effort to bring to the floor a measure to address the ruling even though the Republican caucus has its greatest majority since the Truman administration. He’s been non-committal on the First Amendment Defense Act, religious freedom legislation seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination, although social conservatives have clamored for a vote.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, commended Boehner for his tenure as speaker, saying he was saddled with managing an ideologically fractured majority, but “did it well.”
“Additionally, both Boehner and McCarthy gave tremendous support to openly gay Republicans running for Congress,” Angelo said. “This was especially evident in the 2014 election cycle where House Leadership campaigned and fundraised for Carl DeMaio and Richard Tisei — and admonished House Republicans like Randy Forbes who tried to stop leadership from growing their ranks with gay Republicans.”
Angelo also credited Boehner with helping Log Cabin navigate potential allies in efforts to pass ENDA “before Democrats squashed it.”
After LGBT groups dropped support from ENDA last year over the breadth of the legislation’s religious exemption, it’s true Democrats sought to advance a version of the bill with a narrower carve-out, although Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) supported the Senate-passed bill and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it was better than nothing.
It remains to be seen who’ll replace Boehner as presiding officer of the U.S. House after his departure, but the presumption is after the upcoming election it’ll be the No. 2 lawmaker in the Republican caucus: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
McCarthy has scored a “0” on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard. McCarthy, an opponent of same-sex marriage, began his tenure in the U.S. House in 2007 — too late for him to have voted on the Federal Marriage Amendment in either 2004 or 2006.
But McCarthy was one of the three members of BLAG who voted in favor of the House defending DOMA in court. The California Republican voted against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007.
If elected, social conservatives who feel emboldened by Boehner’s resignation are likely to press McCarthy for a vote on the First Amendment Defense Act, while at the same time LGBT rights supporters decry the absence of movement on the Equality Act. McCarthy’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether he’d be open to allowing either of those measures to move forward.
Angelo declined to comment on a prospective McCarthy speakership because he said the leadership election “is still very fluid,” although Angelo maintained both Boehner and McCarthy always had an open door to Log Cabin.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said McCarthy shares Boehner’s poor record on LGBT issues, but added that supporting LGBT rights is in the best interest of whomever leads the U.S. House.
“The next speaker comes to power in an environment where super majorities of the American people, and a majority of Republicans, stand on the side of equality,” Stacy said. “Time will tell, but I hope the next speaker will begin to reflect this emerging national consensus.”