Thursday, July 09, 2009

OPM 'Wholeheartedly' Endorses Benefits for Same-Sex Partners

This from the Washington Post this morning. What a difference ten months can make.

OPM 'Wholeheartedly' Endorses Benefits for Same-Sex Partners

In case there was any lingering doubt from last fall about the government's position on providing full domestic benefits for same-sex partners of federal workers, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry erased them yesterday.

The White House and OPM, he said at the top of his statement to a House hearing, "wholeheartedly endorse passage" of legislation that would provide them with health and retirement coverage.

His clear, declarative statement could not have been more of a turnaround from the agency's bumbling presentation in September. Then, an OPM official told a Senate committee that the Bush administration had no position on similar legislation, only to correct himself minutes later after an aide informed him that OPM actually opposed the bill.

The official's use of the movie "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," an Adam Sandler film about two firefighters who pretend they are lovers so they can get domestic partner benefits, to demonstrate the dangers of insurance fraud, also left many incredulous.

But now the Obama administration has reversed the Bush administration's position, and the new policy was presented by the government's highest ranking openly gay official.

The current policy, Berry said, "is unjust and it directly undermines the Federal Government's ability to recruit and retain the nation's best workers. Historically, the federal government has in many ways been a progressive employer, but we're behind the private sector and 19 states, including Alaska and Arizona, on this one. Almost 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies already offer similar benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their employees. . . . The Federal Government does not effectively compete with these companies for every talented person when we fail to offer comparable job benefits to our employees."

President Obama took a small but important step toward ending federal workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians when he issued a memorandum last month that allows same-sex partners of federal employees to be covered by federal long-term care insurance. The memorandum also allows the workers to use sick leave to care for their same-sex partners. But extending full benefits requires legislation of the sort being considered by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's federal workforce subcommittee.

Berry's argument did not convince Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the top Republican on the subcommittee, which held the hearing. He said the bill "is directly discriminatory against heterosexual couples" who cohabitate without marriage. The legislation would not cover them.

Those couples, however, have the option to marry, which would allow them to be covered.

Berry does not have that option. He and his partner of 13 years would benefit from the bill because Berry's partner does not have employer-provided insurance.

Unlike some other hearings about federal workforce issues that were relatively lonely affairs, yesterday's session was packed with spectators who waited in a long line to get in. Many in the audience appeared to support the legislation, but not the Chaffetz-invited group of sharply dressed ministers from the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference.

Pastor T.L. Rogers of Triumphant Church in Hyattsville was among those who says he thinks the bill would invite fraud because a non-gay couple could pretend to be lovers to reap the employee benefits. "If I have a cousin who does not have insurance, I can say he is my domestic partner," Rogers said in an interview.

[Digger comments: There is an easy solution to this. Pass federal same-sex marriage now.]

Of course, this version of the Chuck and Larry argument implies that large numbers of people would risk committing a federal crime, by signing an affidavit subject to perjury laws, that certifies the partner relationship meets a set of criteria that says, among other things, the couple share each other's financial obligations. Married couples don't have to submit such documentation.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the chief sponsor of the legislation, said intentional false statements to obtain benefits could get culprits five years in prison or a $10,000 fine. As shot with holes as our health-care system is, it's still unlikely that many people would risk that punishment to get the federal benefits.

Baldwin noted that as a lesbian, she is denied the same level of compensation as her straight, married colleagues in Congress. She and her partner also are not subject, as they would be under the legislation, to the same obligations of married couples. In Baldwin's case that would include disclosure of her partner's income and debts.

Baldwin summed up the rationale for her bill with a simple statement about fairness. The purpose, she said, "is to ensure that hard-working Americans can no longer be denied equal compensation for equal work just because of who they love."

Written statements from the hearing are available here.

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