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Federal Diary: House panel advances bill extending benefits to same-sex partners

The legislation would enable same-sex partners to share in federal employees' benefits.
The legislation would enable same-sex partners to share in federal employees' benefits. (Jacquelyn Martin/associated Press)

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By Joe Davidson
Thursday, November 19, 2009

The effort to expand domestic benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees took another step forward Wednesday when a House committee advanced legislation to do just that.

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After sometimes heated debate, the 23 to 12 vote in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee broke down along party lines, with the victorious Democrats arguing that the measure is a matter of fairness and equality. Republicans opposed it because, among other things, they said it would undermine the concept that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

"As a matter of simple fairness and equality, this is the right step for the federal government to take at this time," said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), the committee chairman. "Providing gay and lesbian federal workers with the same family benefits that their married colleagues receive will ensure that the federal government maintains its role as a model employer in the United States."

Under the legislation, same-sex partners would be able to share the workers' benefits, including those covering health insurance, retirement and disability. The employee would have to sign an affidavit certifying that the relationship meets certain standards in the measure that define domestic partnership.

Democrats said that the current lack of benefits for same-sex partners conflicts with the principle of equal pay for equal work. With a significant portion of employee compensation coming from the benefit package, employees who can share those benefits with members of their households are effectively more highly compensated than those who cannot.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) was succinct in his opposition. "I, for one, stand tall for traditional marriage. I think the American people stand tall for traditional marriage," he said, citing the repeated failures of gay-marriage advocates to pass state referenda on the issue.

Seemingly unaware that Republicans lost the last election, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) cited opposition to the legislation from the Office of Personnel Management -- the agency's stance under President George W. Bush.

In stark contrast to that position, President Obama's OPM director, John Berry, told a House hearing in July that "the White House and the Office of Personnel Management wholeheartedly endorse passage of this bill."

That same month, Obama issued a presidential memorandum that extended a limited set of benefits to same-sex partners. The directive allows them to be added to long-term-care insurance policies and says employees will be allowed to use their sick leave to care for same-sex partners.

Much of the discussion centered on a series of defeated Republican amendments. In one of the more heated moments, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) accused Republicans of "playing on bigotry" during debate on an amendment that would have required those getting benefits to prove they were not illegal immigrants.

Intern program targeted

The largest federal employees union has asked the president to end the Federal Career Intern Program, saying "it undermined merit system protections and restricted the federal, competitive hiring process."

In a letter to Obama, the American Federation of Government Employees complained that managers use the program to bypass the measures that are designed to ensure fairness in federal hiring.

"If not eliminated or dramatically revised, FCIP's inherent lack of transparency has the ability to undermine basic civil service protections that date back to the Pendleton Act over 100 years ago," AFGE President John Gage said in a statement Wednesday. "The FCIP simply is not compatible with merit system protections. And we know that the federal workforce cannot succeed at the expense of merit systems principles or at the expense of competitive fairness."

Not to be confused with a summer intern program for college students, the FCIP is a two-year, highly structured program meant to help agencies fill critical needs.

Along with the letter, Gage sent a proposed executive order that he would like Obama to issue. It would revise the program by calling on OPM to establish merit-based principles for the recruitment, placement and development of career interns.

The program also has long been a target of the National Treasury Employees Union, which has taken legal action against it. The NTEU says that rather than using the program as a supplement to merit-based hiring, some agencies misuse it through overuse.

According to the NTEU, Customs and Border Protection has used the intern program for years as its sole means of hiring new officers, and 62 percent of the Social Security Administration's new hires came through the program in fiscal year 2008.


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