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Policy Ideas Planted in Winter Now Blossom for Same-Sex Partners

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, June 18, 2009

The seeds for the presidential memorandum extending certain federal employee benefits to same-sex couples, which President Obama signed yesterday, were planted last December during a meeting between gay rights advocates and the Obama transition team.

Over about two hours, representatives of several groups met with top transition team officials, including Melody Barnes, now the president's domestic policy adviser, to discuss issues important to gay and lesbian Americans.

"It was a very serious meeting, talking about appointments, talking about positions, talking about legislation," recalled Leonard Hirsch, the president of Federal Globe, an organization representing gay and lesbian federal workers.

Whatever policy seeds the advocates spread that day fell on receptive ground. As a candidate, Obama promoted gay rights, and as a senator he co-sponsored legislation that goes beyond what his memorandum directs.

Once Obama took office, conversations between advocates and White House officials continued. The effort got a big boost two months ago when John Berry took over the Office of Personnel Management. Berry, the highest-ranking openly gay person in the administration, wrote a memo to the president about what the administration should do to make the U.S. government the nation's best employer. That, of course, includes the issues covered in the memorandum and more.

Backing from Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, gave Berry's efforts added muscle, and it didn't take long to get Obama's eager support. The result was yesterday's announcement.

"I'm proud to issue a presidential memorandum that paves the way for long-overdue progress in our nation's pursuit of equality," Obama said just before signing the document.

At the same time, he correctly pointed out that "we've got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally, to fight injustice and intolerance in all its forms."

The memorandum allows same-sex partners to be added to the long-term-care insurance program for federal employees. Employees also can use their sick leave to take care of their partners and non-biological, non-adopted children. Partners of Foreign Service employees will be permitted to use medical facilities at posts abroad, allowed medical evacuation from foreign locations, and counted when determining family size for housing allocations.

"This is the next step of what hopefully will be many steps in moving toward equal rights for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people in this country," Hirsch said, before going to the White House, where he was invited to witness the signing.

Hirsch wants job-related relocation expenses within the United States to be covered for partners, but that will have to wait for the broader review of polices Obama ordered. "Currently most agencies will not pay for the partner," Hirsch said. "They will pay for your pet, but they will not pay for your life partner."

The presidential memorandum does not cover domestic heterosexual partners because they have the option to marry, Berry said in an interview. Implementing the president's directive generates no significant increase to the federal budget, he added.

Obama's announcement was warmly endorsed by major federal employee unions. Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said Obama's action helps "federal agencies in their efforts to recruit and retain the high-quality workforce they need." The government should set "an example on treating its workforce with fairness," she added, noting that many private companies are ahead of the government in this area.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, welcomed Obama's memo, and urged Congress to pass legislation allowing partners to share in the big ticket items, such as the health-care benefits available to employees.

"Real equality for employees in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community will be achieved when the legislation to provide full benefits for domestic partners of federal employees is enacted," he said.

Obama co-sponsored that legislation when he was in the Senate and endorsed it again yesterday during the Oval Office memorandum-signing ceremony. The bill would provide domestic partners of federal workers the same benefits as the spouses of federal employees.

When the bill was introduced, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, said that "extending benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees is more than a matter of fairness. As a majority of Fortune 500 companies have already demonstrated, equality and diversity in the workplace boost productivity and help attract and keep the most qualified employees."

It's about time Uncle Sam caught up.

The White House fact sheet on the presidential memorandum can be found at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Fact-Sheet-Presidential-Memorandum-on-Federal-Benefits-and-Non-Discrimination.

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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