Bill Would Ban Bias on Sexual Orientation

The bill is aimed at the Office of Special Counsel's Scott J. Bloch, who has refused to enforce the policy.
The bill is aimed at the Office of Special Counsel's Scott J. Bloch, who has refused to enforce the policy. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The House federal workforce subcommittee usually operates on bipartisan consensus and voice votes. But not yesterday.

The panel's Democrats and Republicans split over proposed legislation that would ban discrimination against federal employees and job applicants based on sexual orientation. Republicans asked for a roll call, and Democrats, as the majority party, prevailed, 5 to 3.

The measure would affirm that the government's employment policy prohibits bias against gays in the workplace and is directed at Bush appointee Scott J. Bloch, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, who has refused to enforce the policy based on his reading of civil service law.

"In order to dispel any public confusion, Congress repudiates any assertion that federal employees are not protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," a section in the bill states.

The reaffirmation of the government's policy is included in legislation to reauthorize programs at the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board. The bill's larger goal would require the offices to take more care in handling complaints by federal employees.

The OSC deals with complaints by whistle-blowers, who often allege that they are facing reprisals from superiors in their agencies. The MSPB hears appeals from federal employees who face major disciplinary action.

Chief sponsors of the reauthorization bill are Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee, and Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii).

Yesterday, Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Tex.), the subcommittee's ranking minority member, asked that the legislation be delayed a week to work out differences over the sexual-orientation provision. The bill does not include a definition of sexual orientation, and that could create confusion for officials trying to enforce the policy, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said.

Democrats on the panel, including Reps. William Lacy Clay (Mo.) and Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), said their goal is to reaffirm that gays may take their complaints of bias to the OSC.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) then offered an amendment to strike the provision on sexual orientation, prompting the party-line vote. Marchant suggested that Republicans would renew their concerns when the matter comes before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Since Bloch took office in 2004, the OSC has been faulted by government watchdog groups, gay-rights activists and career federal employees for arbitrarily dismissing some employee complaints and whistle-blower disclosures, restructuring the office to get rid of internal critics and backing off the policy on sexual orientation.

Bloch has disputed the allegations and contended that he has improved the efficiency of the office. The inspector general at the Office of Personnel Management is reviewing allegations that Bloch retaliated against employees who disagreed with some of his decisions.

The House subcommittee also approved bills, on voice votes, sponsored by Virginia Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D) and Thomas M. Davis III (R).

Moran's bill would modify a formula used to calculate pensions under the Civil Service Retirement System. The formula penalizes workers hired before 1986 who switch to part-time work near the end of their careers by minimizing their earlier full-time employment credits.

Davis's bill would permit federal civilian and military retirees to pay their monthly health insurance premiums with pretax dollars. The tax code permits employers to offer tax-free payroll deductions for employees, but not retirees, to pay for health care.

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