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Congress

House gives final approval to Respect for Marriage Act

Bill passed with bipartisan support

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U.S. Capitol
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday took a final vote on the Respect for Marriage Act, sending the landmark legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk where it will be signed into law with 258 votes in favor, 169 opposed, and one member voting “present.”

Members in the lower chamber had already passed the Respect for Marriage Act this summer, 267-167, with 47 Republican “yes” votes. The matter before the House today was whether to approve an amendment that was added by the U.S. Senate to enshrine protections for religious liberties.

The Senate cleared the Respect for Marriage Act on Nov. 29, just barely clearing the 60-vote threshold to avert a filibuster with 61 votes in favor of passing the legislation.

Once signed into law, the bill will protect same-sex couples in the U.S. from many of the most harmful consequences that would result if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns or substantially weakens constitutional protections for same-sex marriage.

After voting today, U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) told the Washington Blade outside the Speaker’s Lobby in the U.S. Capitol that passage of this bill is “really a watershed moment,” as it marks “the first time we’ve adopted marriage equality legislatively in this country.”

When New Hampshire’s legislature passed same-sex marriage in 2009, “at the time, we needed to make some clarifications in the text of the legislation to protect religious freedom to bring along the majority that we needed to pass the bill,” said Pappas, who is the state’s first openly gay member of Congress.  

“This is a similar situation, here, to get to 60 in the Senate,” for a filibuster proof majority, and “to get a big bipartisan vote in the House,” Pappas said, adding that “in a logical world” the amendment might earn a few more GOP votes this time around.  

“Congress has restored a measure of security to millions of marriages and families,” President Biden said in a statement following the vote. “They have also provided hope and dignity to millions of young people across this country who can grow up knowing that their government will recognize and respect the families they build.”

Asked what to expect from the next Congress in terms of legislative protections for LGBTQ rights, Pappas said it will be important to continue conversations about the Equality Act to bring more Republican Members on board.

Additionally, he said, “I’m working on legislation that deals with the legacy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and making sure that our veterans get access to the care and benefits that they deserve.” Thousands of service members were “discharged wrongfully from the military just because of who they were, and while the administration has taken some positive steps, we need to submit legislation to make sure they get the help they need,” Pappas said.

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus released a statement celebrating the House’s vote on Thursday.

“The Respect for Marriage Act is a bipartisan triumph and a testament that love will always win in the end,” said U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the caucus.

“After the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and Justice Thomas’ alarming concurring opinion, it became imperative that Congress do everything we constitutionally could do to ensure that marriages across this country continue to be protected,” he said. “Today, Congress did what needed to be done.”

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) also released a statement.

“We are thrilled that the Respect for Marriage Act passed both the Senate and the House with robust bipartisan support. This commonsense legislation provides certainty to millions of loving couples in same-sex and interracial marriages, who will continue to enjoy the freedoms, rights, and responsibilities afforded to all other marriages,” it read. “At the same time, our legislation fully respects and protects religious liberty and diverse beliefs about marriage. This is an important and historic step forward in ensuring dignity and respect for all Americans.”

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Congress

House ethics complaint filed over GOP staffer’s anti-trans email

Rep. Carol Miller’s chief of staff defended his actions

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Matthew Donnellan, chief of staff to Republican U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (W.Va.), in 2012. (Screenshot/YouTube San Diego City Beat)

A federal government employee has filed a complaint to the U.S. House Ethics Committee over an email they received from Matthew Donnellan, chief of staff to Republican U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (W.Va.), which contained combative and anti-trans language. 

The Washington Blade has seen the correspondence between the parties, in which the confrontation was apparently kicked off when the congresswoman’s top aide received an email that included the sender’s preferred pronouns in the signature box, triggering his reply.

Donnellan wrote, “As a father, it is disgusting that anyone would ever tell my son or daughter that something is wrong with them and they should take sterilizing hormones or have surgery to cut off their genitals.”  

“The fact that you support that ideology by putting pronouns in your signature is awful,” he said, adding, “You’re disgusting and should be ashamed of yourself. Don’t email me or anyone from my office ever again.” 

A senior government official told the Blade in a written statement that the email was not out of character for Donnellan:

 “I’ve heard from two colleagues several months apart about two separate transphobic emails, using identical language, from Matthew. Unfortunately these emails—though inconsistent with the typical collegiality one would expect from a Chief of Staff on the Hill—is likely a reflection of both increased partisanship on the Hill and a rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from the right.

“Not only is this virtual, hate-filled temper tantrum unbecoming of a Chief of Staff, inappropriate, and unprofessional, it also hurts his boss’s constituents. DC is built on congressional staff, members of Congress, and executive officials being able to put aside their differences to find unlikely areas of commonality where they can work together. 

“Even some of the most progressive members, like [U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Jerry Nadler (N.Y.)] have partnered with some of the most conservative members, like [U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio)], respectively, when they can find common ground. 

“Matthew’s refusal to work with an agency department or office just because a staffer has pronouns in their signature isn’t just hateful—it means he’s cutting off opportunities to deliver results for his boss’s constituents, especially in a divided Washington.”

Donnellan told the Blade by email that his response to the government employee is “a reply I send to anyone who uses pronouns or pushes gender ideology in any way.” 

“No one is ‘born in the wrong body’ and it’s horrific to tell anyone that they need genital mutilation surgery or sterilizing drugs,” he said. “People who push gender ideology, actively or passively, are awful and should be confronted every single time.”

“If the blunt reality of the terrible things that they are pushing is offensive to them then they should strongly reconsider what it this they believe and the harm that they are doing rather than simply trying to conform to liberal luxury beliefs,” Donnellan said. 

Addressing the complaint filed against him, Donnellan said, “I haven’t heard anything from Ethics and doubt that I will, they generally don’t waste their time with sheltered progressives being forced into the real world for the first time.”

A House Ethics Committee spokesperson declined to comment when asked if they could confirm receipt of the complaint.

Asked whether Miller might object to the way that she and her Congressional office are represented with these confrontational email exchanges, Donnellan said his boss’s “motto is ‘cut the bull’, and gender ideology is some of the biggest bull there is.”   

On Friday, the congresswoman’s son Chris Miller placed third in the Republican primary contest for West Virginia’s gubernatorial race, where the state’s Attorney General Patrick Morrissey secured his party’s nomination in a decisive victory with 33 percent of the vote. 

Leading up to the election, trans issues had emerged as a dominant focal point as the GOP candidates squared off against each other, with Miller’s campaign attacking Morrissey with allegations that he had profited from “the trans agenda” and backed a drug company that “helps turn boys into girls” when working as a healthcare lobbyist in Washington.  

In one ad that was paid for by a super PAC chaired by his father, Miller said the pronouns used by Morrissey are “money-grubbing liberal,” an interesting charge to level at the conservative Republican attorney general of West Virginia (even notwithstanding the fact that those three words are not pronouns but, rather, nouns and verbs.)

Declaring preferred pronouns in workplace email signatures has become commonplace in both the public and private sector, whether for purposes of sending an affirming message to transgender and gender expansive employees and officers or to mitigate the chances that either they or their cisgender counterparts might be unintentionally misgendered. 

The Biden-Harris administration has pushed for agencies to adopt the practice along with other measures and policies to advance the rights and wellbeing of trans and gender expansive employees across the federal government. 

In a 2021 announcement of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s issuance of updated guidance on the agency’s email signature block, Michael Watts, director of civil rights for the U.S. Forrest Service, noted that “There are plenty of gender-neutral names out there, or names from other cultures that might not give you enough information to know their gender.” 

While the inclusion of pronouns was not made mandatory at USDA, he urged employees to “strongly consider taking this small but important step toward supporting inclusiveness in the workplace.” 

“The use of pronouns in our email signatures and getting into the habit of including pronouns in our introductions doesn’t really cost us anything,” Watts added, arguing that the move constitutes “a meaningful exchange to others and makes it easier for people to be respectful in how they address each other.”

“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. 

Official guidance published by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is responsible for administering policies across the U.S. federal civil service, stipulates that agencies should “take steps to provide the option for employees to include the pronouns they use in employee systems and profiles, including email signature blocks, employee directories and employee profiles.”

Some have gone further, such as by adding pronouns to email signatures for all employees, as the U.S. Department of State did in 2023, while others like USDA have established, as official policy, that “employees are encouraged to include their pronouns in the first line of their email signature block (e.g. he/him/his). Signature blocks are a simple and effective way for individuals to communicate their identified pronouns to colleagues, stakeholders, and customers.”

“For example,” the USDA writes, “adding pronouns to signature blocks also has the benefit of indicating to the recipient that you will respect their gender identity and choice of pronouns.”

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Congress

Lawmakers champion drug policy reforms at National Cannabis Policy Summit

Congressional leaders pledged their support for decriminalization

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), second from left (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

Speaking at the 2024 National Cannabis Policy Summit on Wednesday, congressional leaders pledged their support for proposals to remedy the harms of America’s War on Drugs while protecting cannabis users and cannabis businesses that are operating under a fast-evolving patchwork of local, state, and federal laws.

Overwhelmingly, the lawmakers who attended the conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C. or delivered their remarks virtually were optimistic about the chances of passing legislative solutions in the near-term, perhaps even in this Congress.

Participants included U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with U.S. Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and was honored at the event with the Supernova Women Cannabis Champion Lifetime Achievement Award. Republicans included an aide for U.S. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) who was featured in an afternoon panel discussion about the cannabis policy landscape on Capitol Hill.

Each of the members have long championed cannabis-related policy reforms, from Merkley’s SAFER Banking Act that would allow cannabis businesses to access financial services (thereby affording them the critically important protections provided by banks) to Lee’s work throughout her career to ameliorate the harms suffered by, particularly, Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana and the consequences of systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

The lawmakers agreed America is now at an inflection point. Democratic and Republican leaders are coming together to support major drug policy reforms around cannabis, they said. And now that 40 states and D.C. have legalized the drug for recreational or medical use, or both, the congress members stressed that the time is now for action at the federal level.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a formal request to re-categorize marijuana as a Schedule III substance under the rules and regulations of the Controlled Substances Act, which kicked off an ongoing review by the Biden-Harris administration. Since the law’s enactment in 1971, cannabis has been listed as a Schedule I substance and, therefore, has been subject to the most stringent restrictions on and criminal penalties for its cultivation, possession, sale, and distribution.

Merkley acknowledged that re-scheduling would remedy the Nixon administration’s “bizarre” decision to house marijuana under the same scheduling designation as far more harmful and addictive drugs like heroin — and noted that the move would also effectively legalize biomedical research involving cannabis. However, the senator said, while re-scheduling “may be a step in the right direction, it’s not de-scheduling” and therefore would not make real inroads toward redressing the harms wrought by decades of criminalization.  

Likewise, as she accepted her award, Lee specified that she and her colleagues are “working night and day on the legalization, not re-scheduling.” And her comments were echoed by Warren, who proclaimed in a prerecorded video address that “de-scheduling and legalizing cannabis is an issue of justice.”

Congressional Republicans have blocked legislation to legalize marijuana, the Massachusetts senator said, “and that is why the scheduling is so important,” as it might constitute a “tool that we can use to get this done without Republican obstruction.”

Warren, Merkley, and Schumer were among the 12 Senate Democrats who issued a letter in January to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration requesting transparency into its re-scheduling process while also, more importantly, demanding that the agency fully de-schedule cannabis, which would mean the drug is no longer covered by the Controlled Substances Act.

However, in a possible signal of political headwinds against these efforts, their Republican colleagues led by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) responded with a letter to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram “highlighting concerns over HHS’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III-controlled substance.” The GOP signatories, all of whom serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also sought to “underscore the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) duty under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to ensure compliance with the United States’ treaty obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.”

As Norton noted during her prepared remarks, elected Democrats are not necessarily always on the same page with respect to expanding access to economic opportunity facilitated by cannabis. For instance, though President Joe Biden had promised, during his State of the Union address this year, to direct his “Cabinet to review the federal classification of marijuana, and [expunge] thousands of convictions for mere possession,” Norton blamed Biden along with House Republicans for provisions in the federal budget this year that prohibit D.C. from using local tax dollars to legalize cannabis sales.

A non-voting delegate who represents the city’s 690,000 residents in the House, Norton called the president’s position “deeply disappointing,” particularly considering his record of supporting “D.C. statehood, which would allow D.C. to enact its own policies without congressional interference” and grant its residents voting representation in both chambers of Congress. She added that the majority of Washingtonians are Black and Brown while all are held responsible for “the obligations of citizenship including paying federal taxes.”

Norton said the city should also have the power to grant clemency for crimes committed in the District, including cannabis-related crimes — power that, currently, can only be exercised by the president.

Some Republican lawmakers have been at the forefront of efforts to reform harmful cannabis regulations. For instance, a participant in a mid-afternoon panel pointed to the CURE Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) that would prohibit the federal government from denying security clearances based on applicants’ past or current use of cannabis.

While securing statehood for D.C. and de-scheduling cannabis via legislation or administrative action are perhaps, at least for now, a heavy lift, Merkley pointed to promising new developments concerning his SAFER Banking Act.

The Oregon senator first introduced the measure, then titled the SAFE Banking Act, in 2019, and he said the legislation’s evolution into its current iteration was difficult. “Regulators don’t want to be told what to do,” Merkley said, and negotiations with these officials involved “nitty-gritty arguments over every word.”

Pushback also came from one of Merkley’s Democratic colleagues. In September, Warnock, who is Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, voted “no” on the 2023 version of the SAFER Banking Act, writing: “My fear is that if we pass this legislation, if we greenlight this new industry and the fees and the profits to be made off of it without helping those communities” most harmed by the War on Drugs “we will just make the comfortable more comfortable.”

Warnock’s statement followed his pointed remarks expressing concerns with the legislation during a Senate Banking Committee hearing.

“Let me be very clear,” he said, “I am not opposed to easing or undoing federal restrictions around cannabis. And I would support all of the provisions and reforms in this legislation if paired with broader cannabis reforms that substantively address the issue of restorative justice. This bill does not do that.”

At this point, however, the latest version of the SAFER Banking Act has advanced out of committee and earned the support of Senate leaders including Schumer and much of the Republican conference.

“This is the moment,” he said. “Let’s not let this year pass without getting this bill — the safer banking bill — through the House, through the Senate, and on the president’s desk.”

In her remarks, Lee also discussed the importance of business and industry-wide reforms like those in Merkley’s bill.

“We have to make sure that the cannabis industry is viewed by everyone, especially our federal government, as a legitimate business,” Lee said. “Legitimate, which deserves every single aspect of financial services that any legitimate business deserves and has access to.”

Like Warnock, the congresswoman also highlighted how these financial and business considerations intersect with “equity issues,” as “those who have been most impacted by this horrible War on Drugs” must “become first in line for the businesses and for the jobs and for the economic opportunity the cannabis industry provides.”

Reflecting on her experience introducing the Marijuana Justice Act in 2019, which was Congress’s first racial justice cannabis reform bill, Lee remembered how “everyone was like, ‘why are you doing this? It’s politically not cool.’” Her legislation sought to end the federal criminalization of marijuana, expunge the criminal records of those convicted of cannabis-related crimes, and reinvest in communities that have suffered disproportionately from the War on Drugs.

The congresswoman said she explained to colleagues how the bill addressed “many, many layers” of often-intersecting problems linked to federal cannabis policy, telling them: “This is a criminal justice issue, a racial justice issue, an issue of equity, a medical issue, a veterans’ issue, and an issue of economic security.”

Two years later, with a 220-204 vote, the House successfully passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, a comprehensive bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and to the Senate by then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The measure included Lee’s Marijuana Justice Act.

“This bill is the product of many, many years of advocacy for federal cannabis reform and equity,” she said in a statement celebrating the bill’s passage. “Make no mistake: This is a racial justice bill. It’s about the thousands of people of color who sit in jail for marijuana offenses while others profit. It’s about finally repairing the harms of the War on Drugs on communities and families across the country.”

“We’ve come a long way,” she told the audience on Wednesday. “And now we have a long way to go.”

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Congress

House passes spending bill as Greene threatens to oust Johnson

51 of 52 anti-LGBTQ riders were defeated

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks at a press conference on Sept. 20. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. House of Representatives averted a government shutdown on Friday with a vote of 286-134 to pass the $1.2 trillion spending bill, over the objections of hard-right members like U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

The congresswoman subsequently filed a motion to remove House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who is himself an ultraconservative legislator. The move marked the second time in six months that the party has called for a vote to oust their own leader.

“Today I filed a motion to vacate after Speaker Johnson has betrayed our conference and broken our rules,” said Greene, who refused to say whether she would call up the resolution to call for a snap vote, which likely means the matter will be delayed until after the two-week recess.

Greene and Johnson are at odds over the content of the minibus appropriations package, with the congresswoman calling it a “Chuck Schumer, Democrat-controlled bill” that does not contain conservative policy demands on matters like immigration and LGBTQ issues.

The speaker, meanwhile, proclaimed, “House Republicans achieved conservative policy wins, rejected extreme Democrat proposals, and imposed substantial cuts while significantly strengthening national defense.”

With respect to anti-LGBTQ riders submitted by Republican members, more than 50 were ultimately stripped from the bill, which the Human Rights Campaign celebrated as “a victory,” crediting lawmakers for their “bipartisan, bicameral negotiations.”

Of the 52 anti-LGBTQ riders, only one survived in the $1.2 trillion package passed on Friday: A ban on flying Pride flags at U.S. embassies.

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