The election of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as House Speaker represents a new day in Congress, but whether it’ll change things for LGBT rights legislation remains to be seen.
In his remarks upon accepting the gavel last week, Ryan offered a forward-looking vision to addressing the dysfunctional state of Congress, saying early in his life the U.S. House represented “boundless opportunity to do good.”
“But let’s be frank: The House is broken,” Ryan said. “We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean. Neither the members nor the people are satisfied with how things are going. We need to make some changes, starting with how the House does business.”
Among the changes Ryan proposed was a “return to regular order,” which would require committees to craft legislation before it comes to the House floor.
The new speaker’s immediate tasks will likely be addressing criticism from Democrats over select committees on Benghazi and Planned Parenthood in addition to potential passage of cybersecurity and criminal justice reform legislation, but LGBT advocates will be waiting to see how Ryan handles LGBT rights as the push for comprehensive federal non-discrimination protections becomes a high priority.
One such bill is the Equality Act, legislation introduced by Democrats in July that would amend existing civil rights law to include LGBT people. But the bill could also be some kind of compromise non-discrimination measure that would win LGBT support.
Ryan stands out among Republicans because in 2007 he voted for a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, although he also voted for the motion to recommit that would have killed the bill. Just this year, Ryan also broke ranks to vote in favor of an amendment to prohibit federal spending on transportation, housing and urban development contractors that engage in anti-LGBT discrimination.
In a 2010 interview with the Fiscal Times, Ryan defended his vote in favor of ENDA by saying gay employees “didn’t roll out of bed one morning and choose to be gay. That’s who they are.” Acknowledging he “took a lot of grief” from other Republicans because of the vote, Ryan was quoted as saying his attitude toward gay people is a “generational thing.”
Christian Berle, former legislative director for the LGBT group Freedom to Work, was optimistic about the chances of Ryan bringing up pro-LGBT legislation based on the speaker’s 2007 ENDA vote and conversations with lawmaker in 2013.
“Working closely with then-Chairman Ryan and his staff, he was consistent with providing full, legal protections for LGBT workers as a matter of honoring human dignity and a commonsense business practice,” Berle said. “Like many, he did have concerns about the statute being used to impugn religiously affiliated institutions. This track record certainly opens the door to many proposals [to] get considered, as long as they are not free-for-all ‘Christmas tree’ efforts.'”
Asked why Ryan wasn’t a co-sponsor of ENDA if he were so consistent on it, Berle said Ryan made tax policies his priority and although he wasn’t an ENDA co-sponsor “all indications I received were that he would vote for it again.”
It’s because of that ENDA vote that the right-wing leader Eugene Delgaudio of Public Advocate of the U.S. ran an ad on the conservative Drudge Report with a picture of Ryan and the text, “Stop Paul Ryan, the Homosexual Lobby’s Trojan Horse for Speaker.” Clicking on the ad sent readers to a petition calling ENDA a bill “granting ‘protected class’ status to sexual deviants.”
But Ryan’s vote for ENDA is a small part of his 16-year record as a member of the House. He’s also voted against hate crimes protection legislation, against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and twice in favor of a Federal Marriage Amendment. In the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard, the organization gave him a score of “0” out of 100.
When Ryan was running mate in 2012 to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the vice-presidential candidate didn’t make anti-LGBT positions a major component of his proposed agenda, but touted Romney as a “defender of marriage” during an appearance at the anti-LGBT Values Voters Summit.
Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, said despite Ryan’s anti-gay votes, the speaker has had a long-standing relationship with the LGBT Republican group.
“Log Cabin Republicans has long had a working relationship with Congressman Ryan and his staff and I don’t see that changing,” Angelo said. “We look forward to continuing to work with Mr. Ryan in his new role as speaker.”
Ryan’s office didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on whether the speaker would be open to a vote on LGBT non-discrimination legislation.
Any successful vote under Ryan on ENDA — or the Equality Act, or some other kind of LGBT non-discrimination bill — would likely come sometime after the current Congress and the Obama administration. After all, for the time being Republicans have their greatest majority in the U.S. House since the Truman administration and a majority in the Senate. On the other hand, the pro-LGBT amendment to the HUD spending bill passed in the House despite the vast Republican majority in the chamber.
On Sunday during an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Ryan categorically ruled out the possibility of immigration reform legislation coming to the floor while Obama is president, saying the White House can’t be trusted on the issue.
“I think he’s proven untrustworthy on this issue. He tried to go around Congress with an executive order to rewrite laws unilaterally,” Ryan said. “Presidents don’t write laws. Congress writes laws.”
The same could be said about ENDA. After Congress failed to act on the legislation last year, Obama signed an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT workplace discrimination.
One option available to LGBT rights supporters is filing a discharge petition to move a non-discrimination bill to the House floor. It’s a legislative procedure that rarely works, but last week the Democrats successfully used a discharge petition to force a vote to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Over the objections of 177 GOP lawmakers, 62 Republicans joined 184 Democrats to exceed the 218 votes necessary to force a vote on the issue.
Roddy Flynn, executive director of the LGBT Equality Caucus, said there is “not at this time” any consideration to employing a discharge petition to bring the Equality Act to the House floor.
As LGBT advocates seek to advance a non-discrimination bill, Ryan will also face pressure to move forward with the First Amendment Defense Act, a religious freedom measure seen to enable anti-LGBT legislation. As chair of the Ways & Means Committee, Ryan had signaled a committee vote on the legislation would take place, but that vote was later cancelled amid media scrutiny. Ryan isn’t among the 151 co-sponsors of the legislation.
Angelo said in the event the First Amendment Defense Act sees movement under Ryan, the speaker’s pledge to return to regular order would effectively gut the legislation.
“If Speaker Ryan returns to Regular Order in the House as he has promised, any movement of the First Amendment Defense Act would be met with an amendment proposed by our Republican allies in the House that would severely narrow its scope,” Angelo said.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said Ryan should use his new position to advance the Equality Act to enshrine LGBT non-discrimination protections into law.
“The American people are ready to turn away from the politics of discrimination, and we certainly hope that Speaker Ryan will lead the caucus in a new direction,” Stacy said. “With a majority of Republican voters in support of federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT citizens, it’s past time that Congress advanced the Equality Act, which would finally protect LGBT Americans from discrimination no matter which state they call home.”