The Federal Diary
The Federal Diary
Joe Davidson

Federal regulations ease rules for same-sex partners

Government regulations is a profane term in certain circles, but those that the Obama administration is finalizing Friday, and another one being proposed, will lead to greater freedom of action, not less.

The regulations ease restrictions on same-sex domestic partners of federal employees and allow them some of the same benefits available to other families.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

Archive

These regs provide some sane relief from word that Chick-fil-A’s owner thinks people who support same-sex marriage are shaking their fists at God and the disturbing news the Boy Scouts will continue to reject gay boys and leaders. (I might turn in my Eagle Scout badge if I knew where it was.)

The regulations:

■Allow low-income workers to obtain child-care subsidies for children of same-sex domestic partners and permit domestic partners to participate in employee assistance programs. Programs cover substance abuse, stress, family problems and psychological disorders.

■Provide evacuation pay to cover same-sex partners in overseas emergencies.

■Treat same-sex domestic partners like spouses for purposes of choosing an “insurable interest” option at retirement. This could provide a survivor annuity for a same-sex partner. However, unlike spouses they would not be eligible for continued health insurance coverage after the retiree died.

■Makes same-sex domestic partners of federal workers eligible for noncompetitive U.S. government jobs when a staffer returns from a foreign posting.

The office of Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee, did not respond to a request for comment on the regulations.

Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, praised the regulations as “small but important steps to achieving greater parity for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] federal workers and their families.”

Another reg that will be proposed Friday would extend health insurance and dental and vision benefits to the children of same-sex domestic partners of federal employees, but not to the domestic partners.

Sainz said this regulation “will improve the lives of federal employees and their families, and is a significant step in making the federal government a welcoming and competitive workplace for LGBT people.”

But there are more steps to take.

The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act would provide same-sex domestic partners federal employee fringe benefits, such as health and life insurance and retirement benefits. It has been approved by a Senate committee, but chances that the bill will be approved by the full Congress this year are zero.

“Congress should follow the administration’s lead,” Sainz said, “and remove the discriminatory barriers that keep LGBT federal workers from receiving all of the workplace benefits that they have earned.”

What Congress should do and what it will do are two different things.

In plain English

When it comes to speaking plainly, the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t make the grade.

Actually, it made two grades — double Fs — in a report card on how selected agencies have implemented the Plain Writing Act, which is a year old this month. It is designed to foster clear communications in government documents.

The Department of Agriculture was the star pupil, with a grade of A/B.

“We are committed to ‘keeping it simple’ for our customers,” said Jerold Mande, Agriculture’s senior official for plain writing. “We developed a training course that all of our employees can take online. Many agencies require their employees take and pass this course as part of their employee development plans.”

The VA should take heed.

Josephine Schuda, a VA spokeswoman, said “VA is committed to providing veterans and other stakeholders with clear, useful information about their benefits and services. We have worked diligently to set up an organization that supports the requirements and spirit of the Plain Writing Act. We are confident that future ‘report cards’ will reflect the progress we are making.”

The report card was issued by the nonprofit Center for Plain Language, which encourages the use of plain language in government and business operations.

“Unless federal agencies are held accountable, they won’t implement the changes required by the Plain Writing Act,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), sponsor of the act. “The mixed results of the first-ever Plain Language Report Card show that we still have a long way to go to make government forms and documents simpler and easier for taxpayers to understand. Some federal agencies have embraced the Plain Writing Act, and others haven’t. Until these grades are all A-plus, we’re going to keep holding bureaucrats’ feet to the fire.”

The first grade represents how well agencies have done in such areas as complying with the basic requirements of the act, which includes identifying a lead person to coordinate implementation of the law.

The second grade covers related activities, including training and the types of documents covered in an agency’s plain writing plan.

“This first Plain Writing Report Card helps ensure that government agencies are following both the letter and the spirit of the act,” said Annetta L. Cheek, chairman of the Center for Plain Language. “We hope to make this an annual event where we grade different agencies each year.”

Eric Yoder contributed to this column. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

 
Read what others are saying