Marching Orders
Ending 'don't ask, don't tell' will take an act of Congress -- and voters actively pushing for it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

MOMENTUM IS building for a repeal of the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. A proposal from the Palm Center of the University of California at Santa Barbara in May ignited calls for President Obama to issue a "stop-loss" declaration to halt enforcement of "don't ask, don't tell." Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) proposed suspending the 16-year-old policy for 18 months. But both approaches pale in comparison with the full repeal being pursued by Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.).

The rationale for quick, stop-gap solutions is understandable. Ready, willing and able troops (nearly 13,000 men and women since 1993) are being drummed out of the military because of their sexual orientation. "Don't ask, don't tell" was a wrongheaded compromise when it was instituted. It remains so today, especially when the United States is engaged in two wars and dealing with the omnipresent specter of another terrorist attack. But if the president is going to expend the political capital to allow gay men and lesbians to serve their country, Congress should do as he asks and send him a bill to sign that repeals "don't ask, don't tell." This is where Mr. Murphy comes in.

The second-term congressman and Iraq war veteran took over shepherding the Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2009 last month after Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.) resigned to take a post at the State Department. He doesn't agree with the executive order route. During a Web chat on last week, Mr. Murphy said that the president -- "to his credit" -- "seems not to want to ignore standing law that was passed by the Congress. It shows why Congress needs to change it." Mr. Murphy has 163 co-sponsors plus commitments from other colleagues to vote for the bill. While this puts him close to the 218 votes he needs to pass the bill, he's not there yet.

Gay rights activists are right to hold Mr. Obama to his promise to overturn the ban. But they are wrong if they think he isn't trying. The president has met at least twice with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to tell them that he wanted the ban lifted. This month, the Pentagon announced that its general counsel was reviewing the "don't ask, don't tell policy," and Adm. Mullen acknowledged discussing with his staff how he might implement a change in policy. This is the necessary work to get military support for allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly, as they do in 24 countries, including Israel and Great Britain.

What is also necessary is that the activism aimed at Mr. Obama also be directed at Congress. Mr. Murphy has started to harness that grass-roots ire to get more House colleagues to support his bill. As Mr. Murphy told us, "You can sit, bitch and moan, or you can bring about the change in policy our country needs." A majority of Americans believe that gay men and lesbians should serve openly in the military. It's time they got to work to help get it done.

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