Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CNN: Poll: Clinton has high job approval

Poll: Clinton has high job approval

CNN) -- As Hillary Clinton flies to Mexico for a high-level summit, a new national poll indicates seven in 10 Americans are happy with the job she's doing as secretary of state.

Seventy-one percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Wednesday said they approve of how Clinton is handling her job as America's top diplomat. Fewer than one in four disapprove.

"Nine in 10 Democrats approve of Clinton -- that's no surprise," said Keating Holland, CNN's polling director. "But by a 50 percent to 43 percent margin, Republicans also think she is doing a good job at the State Department. That's an interesting result for a polarizing figure like Clinton."

The poll's release comes as Clinton teams up with Mexican officials to kick off weeks of meetings intended to find ways to fight drug violence on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The Obama administration on Tuesday announced a major increase in security funding and agent deployments along the border.

"Since taking office in January, Clinton has been at the White House nearly every day, meeting with President Obama, Vice President [Joseph] Biden and other members of the Cabinet and national security staff," said CNN State Department producer Elise Labott. "The secretary maintains close ties with her former colleagues on Capitol Hill and meets regularly with congressional leaders."

The former first lady, senator from New York and one-time primary rival to Obama already has clocked close to 60,000 miles in her first two trips overseas -- one journey to China, the other to the Middle East and Europe -- since becoming secretary of state in January.

Clinton was met by large crowds and warmly received by world leaders on both trips, although "she met some criticism in Beijing, where she was criticized for a lower-key approach that seemed to downplay the importance of human rights in the overall relationship with China," Labott said.

"Her aides said she wanted a new approach to dealing with China's human rights record, including less public criticism and more private discussions, which may prove more productive in changing Chinese behavior."

Clinton's approval rating is higher than that of her boss: The same CNN/Opinion Research poll put Obama's approval rating at 64 percent, 7 percentage points lower than Clinton's.

Clinton has a couple of advantages over Obama in public opinion today, Holland said.

"She hasn't had a prominent role in the administration's economic or budget policies," he said. "There haven't been any international issues that have caused as much outrage as the AIG bonuses. And her name wasn't on the ballot in November, so any partisan animosity to her that is left over from 2008 is not as fresh in the public's mind."

Clinton's approval rating is also 10 percentage points higher than the one her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, had in March 2005, then two months into her tenure as secretary of state.

The CNN/Opinion Research poll of 1,019 Americans was conducted by telephone March 12-15. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

And Speaking of Hiring...

Apparently a cable, titled Diplomacy 3.0: Diplomacy, Development, and Defense about just that came out on Thursday. It says, among other things:

Although final budget numbers are still being determined, we expect that the Department will be able to hire approximately 2,300 employees this year -- 1,200-1,500 new career Foreign Service and Civil Service employees above attrition. Known as Diplomacy 3.0: Diplomacy, Development, and Defense, this hiring represents the first significant infusion of positions since the end of the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative (DRI) in 2004 and is an important first step in President Obama and Secretary Clinton's plan to put diplomacy front and center as the key tool in achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. With these resources, we will be able to address chronic staffing gaps that developed after the DRI and be better positioned to handle the challenges of today's increasingly complex world.

As we fill our gaps, we will also begin to create a much-needed "training complement" so that language training and critical skills development no longer create domestic or overseas vacancies. We also expect to be able to add to a program of interagency exchanges and cooperation with our partners in the Department of Defense. Although we have crossed an important hurdle, much work remains to be done.

There are many moving parts in the process of recruiting, hiring, training, and deploying such a large number of personnel. An inter-bureau team has been meeting regularly to develop the necessary plans, and we are ready to begin. We are building the registers with highly qualified applicants, have streamlined our processes, and increased the number of A-100 and specialist entry-level classes. We have also brought on retired Senior Foreign Service Officer Nick Williams who is tasked with making sure that the process stays on track according to plan. Nick will be reporting regularly, so look for his blog, which is currently under development.

WP: Uncle Sam Wants You for Foreign Service

From today's Federal Diary in the Washington Post:

Uncle Sam Wants You for Foreign Service

Luis E. Arreaga got right to the point.

"We are hiring.

We are hiring.

We are hiring."

Arreaga, director of the State Department's office of recruitment, examination and employment, was speaking to a large room full of hopefuls at a job fair last week at the Ronald Reagan Building. It was sponsored by Devex, which provides recruiting services for international development agencies.

Arreaga's message essentially was repeated in a cable that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sent to Foreign Service officers on Saturday, as my colleague Karen DeYoung reported yesterday. But while Clinton's cable spoke about the need to "surge" the number of officers in Afghanistan, Arreaga is trying to find people to go all over the world.

And he's not alone.

Officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the government's Millennium Challenge Corp., which provides services in targeted poor countries, also were there to recruit people who can help define President Obama's foreign policy.

USAID, Uncle Sam's foreign assistance agency, plans to double, to 2,200, its rank of foreign service officers by 2012.

"We have never hired like this before," Tom Davis, USAID's outreach and marketing chief, told a panel discussion at the fair.

Davis said his agency is looking for people in many areas, including health, finance and contracting. USAID plans to hire more than 300 people this year.

"We do not have enough officers to administer all those programs," he said. "We do not have enough foreign service officers overseas."

USAID is particularly interested in finding the right people to send to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan -- critical places, though not exactly the garden spots of the world.

"If you are fluent in any Arabic dialect, please come and see me today," Davis said.

Sherri Kraham, an acting vice president at the Millennium Challenge Corp., distinguished her small and relatively new agency -- it's just five years old -- by telling potential applicants that those characteristics can work to their advantage.

"When you come to MCC, you have lots of opportunity to influence the way we do things," she said.

Uncle Sam's hiring efforts are going on all over town. At the Washington Convention Center yesterday, Kathie Ann Whipple, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, spoke to finalists for the Presidential Management Fellows program. The 786 finalists, out of 5,100 who applied, are vying for about 400 jobs at about 80 agencies.

Whipple had these words of wisdom: "As a federal employee, you will have a hand in establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquillity, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty. And remember that you will be expected to take a leadership role in making good on those constitutional goals and that more than 300 million Americans will be counting on you to live up to your oath. Think about that the next time you hear someone complain that it takes too long to apply for a government job as compared to the private sector."

She did not explain what those lofty goals have to do with valid complaints about a federal hiring process that is largely regarded as in need of great repair.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

WP: Foreign Service Jobs in Afghanistan to Grow

This was in today's Washington Post. I haven't seen the cable but I had expected this to happen. And I have heard lots of folks in the Department say they are happy to go. I think the response to this will be very different than to the "diplo-draft."

Foreign Service Jobs in Afghanistan to Grow

The State Department will significantly expand its presence in regional capitals in western and northern Afghanistan in coming months, part of the Obama administration's plans for a "surge" in civilians going to the country.

"As part of our expanding efforts in Afghanistan," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a cable sent Saturday to all Foreign Service officers, "the Department intends to create 14 additional FS positions in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif."

The cable called the jobs "priority" assignments and "new opportunities" for diplomats about to bid on new postings for later this year.

President Obama's senior national security officials have proposed a new overall strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he is expected to approve this week. It includes sending hundreds of U.S. civilian officials to Afghanistan, increasing the size of the embassy and its outposts by about 50 percent -- to about 900 personnel.

Obama has authorized the deployment of 17,000 additional troops, with most headed to southern Afghanistan, where British, Canadian and U.S. forces are battling a resurgent Taliban.

The proportion of U.S. civilian officials to military forces in the country is small, compared with the ratios for other NATO members with troops in Afghanistan. Each of the U.S.-led provincial reconstruction teams outside Kabul, the capital, includes 50 to 100 military and Defense Department contractors, but none has more than a half-dozen civilian officials, even though the teams are charged with traditionally civilian tasks in fields such as development, agriculture and education.

The U.S. civilian presence in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where NATO troops are under Swedish command, has numbered one or two. The American presence in the western province of Herat, under Italian command, is similarly minuscule.

"We want to stand a little on our own" in "these critical places," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

An initial group of seven officials will be sent to each of the cities, including public diplomacy, security, management and administrative personnel, as well as "reporting" officials. A State Department official said that Clinton had "personally approved" establishing the offices.

Still to be determined is whether the provincial reconstruction team offices will be redesignated, either as consulates, which require congressional approval, or as regional embassy offices.

The new posts, and other expanded civilian operations, will probably require expanded security. Xe, the private security company formerly known as Blackwater, holds the State Department contract for diplomatic security in Afghanistan.

The senior U.S. official said the department does not anticipate in Afghanistan a repetition of the difficulties encountered by the Bush administration in finding volunteers to go to Iraq. In addition to Foreign Service officers, the expanded civilian presence in Afghanistan will include recruits from other government departments and "full-time, temporary" government hires for special development tasks.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

WP: Married Gay Couples Entitled to Federal Benefits

This piece waas in today's Washington Post.

The Benefits of Fairness
A lawsuit tests the federal protections owed to same-sex couples.

NANCY GILL, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service,was barred from insuring her spouse under the federal employee health plan. Randell Lewis-Kendell was denied a $255 lump-sum Social Security payment when his spouse of 30 years died in 2007. Keith Toney was told he could not change his name on his passport to reflect his marriage.

Ms. Gill and Mr. Lewis-Kendell and Mr. Toney each married same-sex partners in Massachusetts and continue to live in the state, which has legally sanctioned such unions since 2004. But they were denied federal spousal benefits because Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman. These three and 12 other married gay Massachussets residents recently sued the federal government, arguing that Section 3, as applied in their cases, is unconstitutional because it denies them the equal protection of the law. They are right.

We have long supported legal protections for all committed couples. We have, however, been skeptical of attempts to use the courts -- rather than the political process -- to advance the cause of same-sex marriage. This case is different. The plaintiffs aren't arguing that they should be allowed to marry or to call their relationships marriages; they are married in the eyes of their home state, which has concluded that there are no legitimate reasons for denying these couples the full rights and responsibilities of marriage.

To show that its actions are constitutional, the federal executive branch must demonstrate that it has a rational basis for denying benefits. According to the legislative history, DOMA was created for the purposes of "defending and nurturing the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage," "defending traditional notions of morality" and "protecting state sovereignty and democratic self-governance."

But is traditional marriage strengthened by forcing Ms. Gill to pay extra for medical coverage for her partner when her partner could be covered at no additional charge under the federal health plan that already includes Ms. Gill and the couple's two children? Are traditional notions of morality truly protected by denying a man grieving the loss of his lifelong companion a $255 Social Security payment that often goes toward funeral expenses? Are states' rights bolstered by the State Department's decision to block a name change on a passport when that change is already reflected on other forms of identification, such as a driver's license?

President Obama is on record opposing DOMA. Although the Justice Department typically defends acts of Congress in court, Mr. Obama should ask his legal advisers to determine whether they, like the plaintiffs, believe DOMA as applied in this case is unconstitutional. If so, Mr. Obama should consider whether this is one of those rare instances where the Justice Department declines to defend a law.

The plight of those described in the lawsuit raises profound questions about the legality, fairness, decency and wisdom of denying benefits to committed same-sex couples -- regardless of marital status or home address. This larger question is not before the Massachusetts federal trial court, but it should be on the minds of all who care about justice.

Digger comments:
Overall, this is a good editorial. This is a simple issue of fairness. Why should the federal government get to keep all of the money I contributed to my retirement account if I die before using it when M and I contributed to it together for OUR old age? Is the answer that I should be punished just because I am gay?

I do disagree with this editorial on one point. The Post says they have been "skeptical" of attempts to gain rights via the courts instead of the political process. But the courts have always been the place when minorities have gotten their rights. Brown v Board of Education anyone? Do you really think the majority population was prepared to vote to do away with desegregation? And yet we know it was the right thing to do, and further, it was the right thing to do right then. Waiting for the public to get used to the idea would have been the wrong, and indeed the immoral, thing to do.

The majority seldom grants rights to minorities and it offends me that they should get to. I serve my country and work just as hard as my heterosexual colleagues. It is profoundly unfair that they should receive more compensation, in the form of benefits for their spouses, for doing the same work. I want to be treated equally. And I reject that people should get to vote on my equality or that I should wait until they have gotten used to the idea of my existence.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Supporting the UN Statement on "Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity"

From the State Department Press Release:

UN Statement on "Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity"

Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman, Office of the Spokesman
Bureau of Public Affairs
Washington, DC
March 18, 2009

The United States supports the UN Statement on “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity,” and is pleased to join the other 66 UN member states who have declared their support of this Statement that condemns human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity wherever they occur.

The United States is an outspoken defender of human rights and critic of human rights abuses around the world. As such, we join with the other supporters of this Statement and we will continue to remind countries of the importance of respecting the human rights of all people in all appropriate international fora.

And from the Council for Global Equality (Advancing an American Foreign Policy Inclusive of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) :

Obama Administration Reverses Bush Decision on LGBT Rights at UN

Washington, DC, March 18, 2009-The Obama Administration announced today the U.S. government's support for a UN Statement on "Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity," reversing one of the final decisions of the Bush Administration last December. The UN Statement affirms the universality of human rights of all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and calls for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Gay groups applaud this important reversal of position. "The Administration's leadership on this issue is a rebuke of an earlier Bush Administration position that sought to deny the universal application of human rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals," noted Mark Bromley, who chairs the Council for Global Equality.

The U.S. now joins 66 other nations from all regions of the world who signed the statement at the UN last December, which was read by Argentina. Despite thousands of individual calls to the State Department from U.S. citizens, letters from Members of Congress, and requests from close U.S. allies, Bush Administration officials refused to join the statement, making the U.S. one of the only countries in the "Western Group" at the United Nations that did not sign onto the statement last year. In addition to today's announcement, the U.S. will be making a statement next week at the United Nation's Human Rights Council meeting currently taking place in Geneva.

"President Obama and Secretary Clinton stand poised to remove that blemish on U.S. human rights leadership by affirming human right for all," confirmed Ambassador Michael Guest, a Senior Advisor to the Council for Global Equality. "This is a strong move to reassert U.S. leadership on human rights in general, while also clarifying once and for all that LGBT rights are human rights," emphasized Guest. The Council for Global Equality is a coalition of domestic LGBT organizations and international human rights organizations that demands a clearer and stronger American voice on LGBT human rights concerns.

This important affirmation of universal rights comes just a few weeks after the State Department released an annual report to Congress that examines the human rights record of every country around the world. In that report, the Council found an unfortunate crisis in human rights abuse directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people worldwide. Based on the Council's analysis, this year's human rights report from the State Department was the most comprehensive to date with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity issues (referenced in 190 country reports), pointing to a growing crisis in human rights abuse directed against LGBT people around the world. In many cases, there was evidence that the police or other government officials have been complicit in the crimes.

The Council for Global Equality looks forward to constructive engagement on these and other human rights issues under the new Obama Administration, since President Obama stated during the Presidential campaign that "treatment of gays, lesbians and transgender persons is part of this broader human-rights discussion," and that it needs to be "part and parcel of any conversations we have about human rights." And in Brussels earlier this month, Secretary Clinton assured an audience at the European Parliament that "human rights is and always will be one of the pillars of our foreign policy. In particular, persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians is something we take very seriously."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Government Executive: Efforts to grant feds domestic partner benefits gain momentum

Efforts to grant feds domestic partner benefits gain momentum

By Alyssa Rosenberg
March 13, 2009

Pressure is mounting for the Office of Personnel Management to offer federal employees domestic partner benefits.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, plan to reintroduce the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, perhaps as early as this month, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., will offer a similar proposal in the House. The bills would allow gay and lesbian federal employees to enroll their partners in health insurance and other benefits programs.

The issue also has gained urgency because federal judges in California recently ordered the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, which handles benefits applications for judicial branch employees, to grant the same-sex spouses of two court workers access to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, said OPM, which administers FEHBP, was interpreting the laws governing the program too narrowly. Those laws spell out who should be covered under the federal plan. But Kozinski noted that the types of benefits listed under the laws -- such as coverage for spouses or dependent children up to age 22 -- should be considered minimum requirements.

OPM could decide to open the program to more people, the judge said in a Jan. 13 order directing the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to process benefits applications that would allow Karen Golinski, a 9th Circuit staff attorney, to add her wife to her health insurance plan. Kozinski said the office must continue processing benefits forms without regard for the sex of the spouse.

OPM officials have maintained that the agency cannot provide health care or other employer-based benefits to same-sex couples because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from treating any same-sex relationships as marriages, even if those couples are married in states where it is legal.

But in a separate order on Feb. 2, 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt said the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and he directed the administrative office to process insurance forms for the husband of Brad Levenson, a deputy federal public defender. Reinhardt reiterated Kozinski's order to process benefits forms for any same-sex couples who applied for them, and retained jurisdiction over the matter "so that I may issue any further order that may be necessary to ensure that Levenson's spouse receives the benefits to which he is entitled."

Mike Orenstein, a spokesman for OPM, declined to comment on the impact of the California court orders, and referred a request for comment to the White House.

President Obama appointed National Zoo director John Berry to be OPM director on March 3, sparking speculation that if Berry is confirmed, the agency's stance on domestic partnership benefits could shift. Berry worked on a range of initiatives affecting benefits for and treatment of gay and lesbian federal employees during a stint as assistant secretary at the Interior Department under President Clinton.

Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for President Obama, repeated an earlier statement to The New York Times, saying the president opposed full marriage rights for gay couples, but that all citizens should be treated with dignity and respect. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in his daily briefing on Friday that the White House will work with Congress on the issue.

Leslie Phillips, communications director for Lieberman on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the senator planned to reintroduce the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act soon.

"Our legislation would fix this very problem," Phillips said. "It would give OPM the explicit authority to do what they now say they don't have the authority to do."

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she hoped OPM would consider following Kozinski's guidance and expanding its authority. She noted that the union had negotiated domestic partner health benefits coverage for employees at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Workers there can bargain over pay and benefits because FDIC is not covered by the normal appropriations process. Kelley said the relative ease of expanding benefits at FDIC could serve as a model for other agencies and lawmakers.

"I think it would be great if OPM determines they have the authority and do it administratively," Kelley said. But she emphasized the need for a more permanent solution: "The good thing about legislation is once it's in the statute -- it can't be taken away."

Beth Moten, legislative director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said health care isn't the only issue that the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act would solve -- the legislation addresses retirement benefits, family leave, long-term care insurance and other benefits available to heterosexual married couples.

"AFGE strongly supports the Lieberman-Baldwin bill, which is about all benefits, not just health insurance," Moten said. "If it passes the Congress, we would certainly expect President Obama to sign it."

Monday, March 16, 2009

WP: Gay couples should be allowed to stay together in the United States

This editorial was in today's Washington Post.

Separation Anxiety
Gay couples should be allowed to stay together in the United States

THE UNITING American Families Act would allow gay and lesbian Americans and permanent residents to sponsor their foreign-born partners for legal residency in the United States. The bill, introduced last month in the Senate by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and in the House by Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), would add "permanent partner" and "permanent partnership" after the words "spouse" and "marriage" in relevant sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act. If passed, it would right a gross unfairness.

Under the proposal, a "permanent partnership" is defined as a "committed, intimate relationship" with another adult "in which both parties intend a lifelong commitment." The couple must be financially interdependent and not married to or in a permanent partnership with anyone else. And the partners can't be related. The benefit comes with the same immigration restrictions and enforcement standards that apply to heterosexual couples. Fraudulent permanent partnerships face the same penalties as fake marriages: up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

"Under current law, committed same-sex foreign partners of American citizens are unable to use the family immigration system, which accounts for a majority of the green cards and immigrant visas granted annually by the United States," Mr. Leahy said upon introducing the bill. "The promotion of family unity has long been part of federal immigration policy, and we should honor that principle by providing all Americans the opportunity to be with their loved ones." According to the most recent census, he added, about 35,000 binational, same-sex couples are living in the United States. The new legislation would ensure that the family connections valued under immigration law are extended to gays and lesbians.

The strain of the status quo on gay and lesbian binational couples should not be discounted. Because their relationships are not legally recognized by the United States, some couples have resorted to illegal marriages where the foreign nationals marry Americans to get green cards that allow them to stay in the country permanently. In other cases, Americans have exiled themselves to be with their partners. Sixteen countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United Kingdom, allow residents to sponsor same-sex permanent partners for legal immigration. American gays and lesbians should not have to choose between their country and their partners.

Digger comments:
This is an issue of particular importance to gay and lesbians Foreign Service families.

Like their heterosexual colleagues, many LGBT Foreign Service officers go overseas and fall in love. But while their heterosexual colleagues can get legally married, and then apply for marriage-based immigration, LGBT foreign service officers can not. In fact, the foreign-born spouses of heterosexual foreign service officers can apply for expeditious naturalization, allowing them to become naturalized Americans more quickly and without the required time in the United States so that their spouse may continue to serve overseas as needed without jeopardizing their immigration status.

Of course, this also means that the Foreign Service officer with a heterosexual foreign-born spouse can serve in DC, which most people know is neccessary to advance their careers in the State Department. This is not an option for many LGBT foreign service officers, who end up spending their entire careers overseas to the deteriment of their ability to make connections in the Department and even to be promoted. Instead, they must choose to serve in places where they can be with their partners because it is too difficult to have their partners come back to DC with them for any length of time. It also means that Foreign Service Officers can not retire to the country they have loved and served without abandoning the partner who supported them in their service.

It is time to fix this.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gay Rights Percolating to Top of Obama's To-Do List

I found this piece today at Heidi Patriot.

Gay Rights Percolating to Top of Obama's To-Do List

DURING THE CAMPAIGN then-candidate Obama made some fairly sweeping commitments to the gay community expressing his support for the repeal of the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" military policy. Although he had probably hoped for a bit more time before making good on these campaign promises, events have played out differently. The President now faces some tough choices if he is to make good on his word.

Obama's gay supporters have already been disappointed by a handful of unintentional but nevertheless hurtful missteps during the Inauguration. The first, and biggest, was the controversial selection of Rick Warren, a mega-church pastor and perceived champion of anti-gay causes, to give the Inauguration's invocation. To compensate for the offense this did to gay backers, the Inaugural committee invited gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to give the opening prayer at an open-air inaugural concert earlier in the week. Unfortunately, this backfired when HBO failed to broadcast the prayer, only starting its broadcast of the concert afterwards. In a scramble, the committee ensured the prayer was included in subsequent broadcasts and apologized for the "oversight", but the damage was already done.

In fairness to the campaign, Rick Warren is not the most virulent of anti-gay campaigners; Melissa Ethridge and he had a very public back-and-forth in which she ultimately expressed her opinion that he was someone the gay movement needed to continue a dialogue with; and the whole Gene Robinson affair appears to have been a blunder, not a slight. The real issues are now coming front-and-center, and there is little wiggle-room for Team Obama this time.

Issue one is the whole matter of granting health care and other rights to the gay partners of Federal employees. Obama has expressed his commitment to overturning DOMA, which conservatives claim was designed expressly to ensure the denial of such benefits. Groups such as GLIFAA, the gay and lesbian association for foreign affairs personnel, have been urging Secretary of State Clinton and the administration to re-interpret DOMA more literally so as to loosen up some of the restrictions on gay foreign service officers. (As things stand now, the U.S. government will pay to send diplomats' pets overseas, but not their life partners.) Simultaneously, a Federal court in California recently decided that benefits needed to be extended to same-sex partners of court employees -- which runs completely contrary to the current policy of the Office of Personnel Management. Secretary Clinton has promised to review the policy on benefits, while President Obama has stated publicly that his appointment to run OPM -- not yet confirmed -- shares a commitment to extend benefits to same-sex partners. But a wary gay community wants action, not words.

Issue number two involves another Clinton-era legacy, "Don't Ask - Don't Tell." In early March it was revealed that the military undertook a mini-purge of gay enlistees in the final days of the Bush Administration, at a time when the army's recruitment numbers are down and its commitments expanded. The Bush Pentagon waged a low-level war against gay soldiers over the past eight years, firing among others a large number of skilled (but homosexual) Arab linguists. Many hoped President Obama would immediately suspend "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" but that has yet to happen. Secretary of Defense Gates, however, has made some conciliatory statements indicating a possible review of the policy -- but he was the same Secretary Gates who overseas the January purge.

Many pundits have been claiming these gay battles are the last thing Obama needs right now, and cite the disastrous attempts by President Clinton to overturn the ban on gays in the military in the first months of his presidency. Some express concern that by taking a firm stand for gay rights, Obama will alienate the very Republicans he needs to pass his ambitious program of economic, health, and entitlement reform.

Nothing could be further off the mark. Clinton, elected with well shy of 50 percent of the vote, never had the approval ratings Obama does at this point in his presidency, and anyway, it was his prevaricating on the issue, rather than the issue itself, that ultimately resulted in the muddled "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" compromise. With his approval ratings hovering in the high 60 percentile, and solid majorities in both the House and the Senate, President Obama can afford to do this with plenty of room to spare. The military doesn't even seem wholeheartedly opposed gay servicemen and -women -- after seven years fighting in the trenches of Afghanistan and Iraq with them, they are viewed as loyal colleagues, not fifth column deviants. Colin Powell has even expressed support for binning the policy.

Postponing decisive action on such a political hot potato will ensure nothing will be done for another four years. President Obama owes it to his loyal gay following to start acting on his campaign promises to extent equality to the gay community. And Secretary Clinton, for her part, can begin atoning for the sins of her husband's triangulation (remember, he signed DOMA into law after the Republican majority passed it) by ordering an immediate overhaul of the State Department's policy towards same-sex partners as GLIFAA has requested.

State Department Wins A Round Against Gay Foreign Service Officer

State Department Wins A Round Against Gay Foreign Service Officer

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled on March 12 that the U.S. State Department was entitled to summary judgment in a sexual orientation discrimination case brought by Karl Olson, a gay Foreign Service Officer (FSO) who claimed that adverse Employee Evaluation Reports concerning his service in Brazil were impermissibly tainted due to the homophobia of the Consul General in Rio de Janeiro. Olson v. Clinton, 2009 WL 635977 (D.D.C.).

Interestingly, Judge Kessler found that there was plenty of evidence to substantiate Olson's charge that some of the officials representing the United States of America in Brazil are homophobic, and that Olson may have been subjected at times to homophobic conduct during his posting there. On the other hand, she found that a decision by the Foreign Service Grievance Board rejected Olson's claim that homophobia had tainted his reviews was not arbitrary or capricious, because she found that the record was also full of evidence tending to corroborate the adverse comments found in the actual evaluations.

It appears that Mr. Olson was controversial in the office due to his manner in dealing with both staff and individuals seeking visas, and the comments in his evaluations reflected concerns that were expressed by co-workers there who were not charged with being homophobic - even some of whom had confirmed in their statements that there was a problem with homophobia in the office.

Some of the nastiest comments were apparently redacted from the written opinion in the case by Judge Kessler, so it is not possible to be completely precise in reporting on what the comments were that caused Mr. Olson to file his grievance. Apparently they were very harsh, or it is likely they would not have been redacted, since it seems that Judge Kessler did quote them but then an editorial process determined that they were not suitable for publication, at least in the opinion as released to Westlaw.

At any event, regardless of the merits of Olson's claim that his EERs were tainted by official homophobia, Judge Kessler's finding about the overt homophobia in the U.S. Consulate in Rio raise independent cause for concern, inasmuch as the State Department has an official personnel policy against anti-gay discrimination. Olson's claims related back to events that occurred during the Clinton Administration (his posting in Rio began in 1993, eight years after he joined the Foreign Service and five years after he achieved a "tenured" ranking), and his claim originally named Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as titular defendant. Current Secretary Hillary Clinton was automatically substituted as defendant after she was confirmed in as Secretary. One hopes that this ruling will be brought to Secretary Clinton's attention, so she can consider with her staff what needs to be done to reform the Foreign Service ranks to assure that overt homophobia is not tolerated and that individuals who have been shown to be homophobic will be subjected to appropriate correction.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Women in Government: A dialogue with Secretary of State Clinton

Secretary Clinton met yesterday with a group of women from the State Department to discuss the role of women in government. You can read the entire transcript of the event here.

Women in Government: A dialogue with Secretary of State Clinton

We need women in the State Department, women throughout our United States Government, women everywhere, to step up and take the lead in addressing the crises that confront us. We need the benefit of women’s life experiences and expertise. And women here in the United States, as well as women around the world, need a State Department that is committed to the advancement of women and to the furthering of women’s rights. And that will be – (applause) – that will be a building block of our foreign policy in the Obama Administration and certainly during my tenure.

I recognize that there is a long way to go for our country and our Department in ensuring full and equal representation for women. But we have a lot to be proud of today. It is no longer at all unusual to have women serving as Foreign Service officers, as very high-ranking Civil Service officers, ambassadors, or certainly Secretary of State.

NYT: Obama on Spot Over a Benefit to Gay Couples

The NY Times had a piece yesterday on court rulings giving health benefits to the partners of federal employees. You can read the entire piece here.

Obama on Spot Over a Benefit to Gay Couples

WASHINGTON — Just seven weeks into office, President Obama is being forced to confront one of the most sensitive social and political issues of the day: whether the government must provide health insurance benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

In separate, strongly worded orders, two judges of the federal appeals court in California said that employees of their court were entitled to health benefits for their same-sex partners under the program that insures millions of federal workers.

But the federal Office of Personnel Management has instructed insurers not to provide the benefits ordered by the judges, citing a 1996 law, the Defense of Marriage Act.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama said he would “fight hard” for the rights of gay couples. As a senator, he sponsored legislation that would have provided health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

Now, Mr. Obama is in a tough spot. If he supports the personnel office on denying benefits to the San Francisco court employees, he risks agitating liberal groups that helped him win election. If he supports the judges and challenges the marriage act, he risks alienating Republicans with whom he is seeking to work on economic, health care and numerous other matters.

In a letter on Feb. 20 to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, an arm of the federal judiciary, Lorraine E. Dettman, assistant director of the personnel office, said, “Plans in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program may not provide coverage for domestic partners, or legally married partners of the same sex, even though recognized by state law.”

Benefits are available to the spouse of a federal employee, Ms. Dettman said, but the 1996 law stipulates that “the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

Federal officials said they had to follow the laws on the books. But Richard Socarides, a New York lawyer who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay issues, said he believed that Mr. Obama “has broad discretionary authority to find ways to ameliorate some of the more blatant examples of discrimination.”


Gay federal employees said they were denied equal compensation when their partners were denied health benefits.


Ben LaBolt, a White House spokesman, said: “While the president opposes gay marriage, he supports legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. He believes this country must realize its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect.”

Mr. Obama and his choice for director of the personnel office, M. John Berry, have endorsed the idea of providing health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

The Office of Personnel Management estimates the cost at $670 million over 10 years.


Judge Reinhardt confronted the question differently, and concluded that the Defense of Marriage Act, as applied to Mr. Levenson’s request, was unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment guarantee of “due process of law.”

A bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot provide a rational basis for governmental discrimination,” Judge Reinhardt wrote.

In adopting the Defense of Marriage Act, Congress said the government had a legitimate interest in “defending and nurturing the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage.”

But Judge Reinhardt said the denial of benefits to same-sex spouses would not encourage gay men and lesbians to marry members of the opposite sex or discourage same-sex marriages.

“So the denial cannot be said to nurture or defend the institution of heterosexual marriage,” the judge wrote.


In addition, Congress may soon weigh in.

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and Representative Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, plan to introduce bills that would provide benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

Similar bills died in the past. But “the new administration will have a new view,” Ms. Baldwin said.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Undiplomatic: Bottleneck at State

Undiplomatic has the following post about the appointments (or lack thereof) to fill top positions at State.

Inside the State Department, you can’t know who does what without a scorecard. Every position/bureau has a one- to three-letter abbreviation — even the Secretary, whose office is called “S” inside the building.

There are six undersecretaries, each of which also has a single letter abbreviation: Political Affairs (P); Management (M); Democracy and Global Affairs (G); Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R); Arms Control and International Security (T); and Economic Affairs (E). These are the most senior positions in State other than the Secretary and two Deputy Secretaries, and each supervises somewhere between six and fifteen bureaus and offices. Think of the undersecretaries as the government equivalent of a business with Vice Presidents who oversee a number of offices.

So why am I telling you all this? Because nearly six weeks into the Administration (and four months since the Obama transition team started work), four of the six positions — G, R, E, and T — all remain unfilled.


In case you’re wondering about the other two Undersecretary Positions — Political Affairs and Management — they are both filled by career foreign service officers who were originally appointed by the Bush Administration. That’s normal — career FSOs serve specific terms (two, sometimes three years), even in senior positions (though they still serve at the pleasure of the President and still must be confirmed by the Senate).

That means that the current score is career FSO positions 2, political appointments 0. The Administration needs to get its act together to resolve this, either by finding appropriate political appointees or naming talented FSOs to fill the slots. Although these vacancies may not be as critical as the positions at Treasury, it’s awfully hard to steer the ship if you’ve only got a captain and two mates.

Of course, the single letter offices aren't the only ones unfilled. Most of the bureaus have "Acting" Assistant Secretaries while we wait for word of when someone will fill that office. But at least we have leadership, usually in the form of the former Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) from that bureau. So these are folks who know how things work. Not so with some of the single letter offices...some of them don't even have an "Acting."

Monday, March 09, 2009

WP: Crowley may be next Department Spokesman

Al Kamen had this snippet in today's In the Loop:


There's buzz that the administration is looking to bring Philip J. Crowley, senior director for public affairs for the Clinton National Security Council and before that principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, back into government to be top spokesman for the State Department.

Crowley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, was a spokesman for the government and the military for 28 years, including 11 at the Pentagon and three at the White House. He served in the Air Force for 26 years, retiring as a colonel.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Want to join the Foreign Service?

Selling Out, who is trying to join the Foreign Service, has a good description today of the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), including an account of a recent Oral Assessment (OA).

It doesn't sound like the OA has changed much. And I can confirm that the order you are called out of the room has no relation to whether you passed. I was called in the middle of our group of 12, and I was the only passer the day I took the test.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

I left my heart in San Francisco (and the rest of California too)

I have never been to California, but today, my heart is there. Today, the California Supreme Court is hearing an appeal to overturn Proposition 8, the ballot measure that will effectively divorce 18,000 same-sex couples. Included in that number is a friend, a United Church of Christ minister who married me and my partner in North Carolina in 2002. She and her wife are happily married with a beautiful one should get to decide to divorce them any more than we should get to vote on whether members of racial minorities can marry.

So my heart is in a state where I have never been, thinking good thoughts for people I have never met.

If you have time, check out the "Don't Divorce Me" video here.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Openly gay John Berry named OPM director

This was in today's Government Executive. I also noticed mention of it in the Washington Post's "In The Loop." If Berry is confirmed, this is great news for all LGBT government employees.

John Berry named OPM director

By Alyssa Rosenberg

March 3, 2009

President Obama on Tuesday nominated John Berry, currently the director of the National Zoo, to lead the Office of Personnel Management.

"From turning around the National Zoo to fostering a more productive work environment at the Department of the Interior, John Berry has a tremendous record of effective management in key public service roles," Obama said. "I'm confident that he will provide that same leadership at OPM to help ensure that government works for the American people the way it should."

Karen Korpowski-Gallo, senior public affairs specialist for the zoo, said Berry would not speak to the media until after he is confirmed by the Senate.

Berry has a long history in federal workforce and management issues. He served as legislative director to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., for 10 years.

During that time, he was Hoyer's lead on federal employee policy issues, helping to guide the negotiations that led to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, which established the locality pay system. Beth Moten, legislative director of the American Federation for Government Employees, said congressional staffers noted at the time that without Berry to manage the often-tense discussions, the legislation never would have passed.

"I can think of no better person than John Berry to lead the Office of Personnel Management," Hoyer said. "John is an incredibly qualified public servant who possesses significant management experience, great knowledge of government, and a high regard for our federal workforce. Anyone who has worked with him knows how very bright and positive a person he is. He is an excellent choice to lead OPM, and I strongly support his nomination."

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Workforce Subcommittee, which will oversee Berry's nomination, also had high praise for Obama's pick.

"I know John to be a strong, capable, and passionate leader," Akaka said. "OPM is key to our government's ability to perform, because human capital is critical in everything our government does, from national security to financial industry oversight. We need someone like John who can attract talented leaders and maintain quality across federal agencies so management will be at its prime."

Berry built solid relationships with federal employee unions during his time on Capitol Hill.

John Gage, president of AFGE, said the union had recommended Berry to the Obama administration. Gage said he spoke with Berry recently and expected to work with him on a number of issues, including giving federal employees college credit for training courses, reforming the classification system and increasing union involvement in shaping the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she thought Berry would foster partnerships between management and labor.

"I believe he will play a key role in helping return respect to the federal workforce, which in turn will help attract talented and dedicated employees to public service," Kelley said.

During the Clinton administration, Berry served as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at Interior, where he oversaw a number of programs to improve employees' work-life balance. He held town hall meetings to elicit suggestions, leading to upgrades to the Interior cafeteria and health center, and also improved the department's credit union and continuing education options. Berry funded a number of those enhancements through partnerships with unions, other agencies and even employees -- reducing their overall costs to the department.

At the zoo, Berry drew up a strategic plan, reorganized its management structure and completed a 20-year capital plan for its finances.

Berry is also known as an advocate for gay and lesbian federal employees. According to the Human Rights Campaign, if confirmed, he will be the highest-ranking openly gay official to serve in the executive branch in any administration.

During his time at Interior, Berry worked to create a grievance procedure for employees who experience discrimination because of their sexual orientation, expand relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of employees, establish a liaison to gay and lesbian workers, and eliminate discriminatory provisions of the National Park Service's law enforcement standards -- including a ban on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees.

Under President Bush, OPM opposed allowing the domestic partners of federal employees to receive health and retirement benefits available to heterosexual married couples. OPM argued in a 2008 congressional hearing that extending partner benefits was too risky because gay and lesbian federal employees might commit fraud to get them.

Leonard Hirsch, international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution and president of Federal GLOBE, which represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender government employees, said in a January interview with Government Executive that he thought Berry would reverse OPM's benefits policy.

"I have known John for over 15 years, and his intelligence, skills, energy, and bountiful personality will make him an extraordinary Director of OPM for all Federal employees," Hirsch said on Tuesday. "In these times of challenge, no worker should be left behind."

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said he thinks Berry will bring an innovative approach to the major challenges the federal government faces.

"We need a very talented, strong person for that job," Stier said. "The president's [outlined] an enormous agenda, and it's going to depend in large measure on whether we've got a large number of people engaged in the best way to make it happen."

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Suit Seeks to Force Government to Extend Benefits to Same-Sex Couples

From today's NY Times:

Suit Seeks to Force Government to Extend Benefits to Same-Sex Couples


BOSTON — The legal advocacy group that successfully argued for sex-same marriage in Massachusetts intends to file suit here on Tuesday seeking some federal benefits for
spouses in such marriages.

The target is the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. That law denies federal benefits, like Social Security survivors’ payments, to spouses in such marriages.

Because same-sex marriage is allowed in only two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the number of spouses who are denied such benefits is fairly small. But Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the group planning to file the federal suit, believes the number will grow as more states consider granting gay and lesbian
couples the right to marry.

At least eight other states, including New York, are considering same-sex marriage bills.

“In our view, it’s a straightforward equal-protection issue,” said Mary L. Bonauto, civil rights project director for the group, referring to the constitutional mandate that laws be applied equally to everyone.

The suit, to be filed in Federal District Court in Boston, does not challenge a separate provision of the act that says states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

And while the Government Accountability Office has identified more than 1,100 federal statutory provisions in which marital status is a factor in rights and benefits, the suit focuses narrowly on equal protection as applied to Social Security, federal income tax, federal employees and retirees, and the issuance of passports.

“We picked programs every American can relate to,” Ms. Bonauto said.

The plaintiffs in the suit include eight couples and three widowers, all of whom were married in Massachusetts after the state began allowing same-sex marriages in 2004. All have applied for federal benefits, Ms. Bonauto said, but have been denied because the federal government does not recognize their marriages.

Some of the plaintiffs are federal employees who cannot share their health benefits with spouses; others cannot file taxes jointly or are receiving less generous Social Security retirement benefits.

The widowers include Dean Hara, the spouse of former Representative Gerry E. Studds. After Mr. Studds died in 2006, Mr. Hara, 51, was denied his Congressional pension and other benefits normally extended to surviving spouses of federal employees.

Another married couple, Melba Abreu and Beatrice Hernandez, estimate they would have saved about $20,000 in federal income tax over the past few years if they had been able to file jointly.

“In our case, the core of our American dream has always been for Melba and I to provide for one another,” said Ms. Hernandez, 47, of Boston. “This presents a real threat to that, when we take a good hard look at our future years.”

Another plaintiff, Herbert Burtis, 78, lost his spouse last year and would be entitled to about $700 a month in Social Security survivor benefits if his marriage had been heterosexual.

“Nobody else has to go through that begging to be considered equal to other married people,” said Mr. Burtis, who married in 2004 but was with his partner for more than 60 years.

Although federal courts have heard other challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, Ms. Bonauto said, this is the first in which plaintiffs who were married in their state of residence applied for federal benefits and were denied them.

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a group that has lobbied against same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, said he did not think one part of the federal act could be singled out and struck down.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law scholar and dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine, said that the case seemed strong but that victory was not certain.

“I think that under established equal protection law, they have strong claims,” Mr. Chemerinsky said. “But it does raise issues that courts haven’t dealt with before, so that makes it more difficult to predict what the courts will do.”

Mr. Burtis, who was among hundreds of gay, married residents of Massachusetts whom Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders reached out to, said he did not expect to receive federal benefits in his lifetime.

“But at least I can be part of what I think would be a historic moment to help someone in a future generation get equality under the law,” he said.

Monday, March 02, 2009

DMW: The Struggle Continues

Dead Men Working had a post yesterday about the struggles LGBT folks in the foreign service continue to face.

The Struggle Continues

I spoke the other day to a former Foreign Service Officer who lost his security clearance for being Gay.

The State Department likes to claim such things don't happen, especially in an age when the Secretary of State is correctly considering extending greater benefits to committed partners of Gay and Lesbian employees, but they do. In this case, in fact, the officer in question was specifically accused of sexual perversion, and his clearance was revoked on that basis.

We spoke the other day because he called to bring to my attention an article in the Washington Post, noting that the home of Franklin Kameny has been designated as a DC Historic Landmark. In 1961, Mr. Kameny filed the first civil rights claim in a U.S. court based on sexual orientation.

In his pivotal lawsuit, Kameny specifically addressed the security clearance issue, asserting that the federal policy calling homosexuals a security risk was "no less illegal and no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds." The Supreme Court upheld that assertion.


You can read the entire post here.