Congress has a good chance to end 'don't ask, don't tell'

Wednesday, May 26, 2010; A16

IF ALL GOES according to plan, we could be writing the obituary of "don't ask, don't tell" by the end of the week. The House and Senate are poised to cast votes that would end the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, while leaving the timetable for implementing new rules up to the Pentagon. This is not the optimal way to end this reprehensible policy. But there has never been a better opportunity to nullify a law that has forced more than 14,000 service members out of the military since 1994.

The repeal of the ban would be attached to the Defense Department spending bill. The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to vote on the amendment on Thursday. On the House side, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) is expected to offer a floor amendment to the defense bill. All this depends on a compromise on implementation.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made clear his opposition to congressional action before the Pentagon working group that is examining how to end "don't ask, don't tell" completes its report. Deadline: Dec. 1. So the legislation would stipulate that the repeal would go into effect only if the results of the working group are approved by President Obama; Mr. Gates; and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They would have to certify that a change in policy would not negatively affect recruitment, readiness or retention. The report then would be the department's guide for ending the ban.

This isn't ideal. It means that the discriminatory policy wouldn't end right away. But it would allow Mr. Gates and Mr. Mullen to make good on their assertions that the lifting of the ban is a matter of "when" and not "if."

The experience of U.S. allies that allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly should provide a wealth of information and best practices that would make the transition to an inclusive armed forces smooth and as expeditious as possible. But first, Congress must vote.

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