Jennifer Bendery and Sam Stein report on a big, if belated, move by Obama to circumvent Congressional Republicans’ refusal to act on gay workplace discrimination:
President Barack Obama has directed his staff to draft an executive order that would ban workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees of federal contractors, a White House official told The Huffington Post.
The move is the clearest indication to date that the administration is prepared to take action on LGBT rights where Congress has fallen short. Notably, the official would not say whether the president will sign the order into law on Monday — suggesting the White House is leaking the news to warn lawmakers that they have a limited window to pass more sweeping workplace discrimination legislation before he acts without them.
“The president’s intentions are clear,” the official said, when asked whether Obama would sign the order. “We will keep you posted.”
Obama’s plan to draft an executive order comes after years of inaction on this front. The administration has been calling on Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal for employers nationwide to fire or harass someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill passed the Senate, but as it stalled in the House, pressure mounted on the president to act in ways that don’t require legislative approval.
Much to the chagrin of LGBT rights groups, Obama has resisted taking matters into his own hands. An executive order banning workplace discrimination against employees of federal contractors could affect as many as 16 million workers.
It will be very interesting to see how Republicans respond to this. House Republicans criticized Obama’s recent executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors. This sort of executive action to go around Congress has generally been cast by Republicans as lawlessness. And House Republicans have refused to hold a vote on ENDA. John Boeher has claimed to oppose workplace discrimination against gays, while arguing that ENDA is “unnecessary and would provide a basis for frivolous lawsuits.” Meanwhile, it’s still legal in many states to fire people based on sexual orientation.
So how will Republicans react to today’s announcement? Here’s a data point to keep in mind.
Prominent gay rights advocate Richard Socarides recalls that in 1998, Bill Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal workforce. At that time, Congressional Republicans mobilized to block it with a bill that would have prohibited government agencies from spending money to enforce it — in effect, defunding the Executive Order. It got nearly 200 Yes votes, Socarides recalls.
“We were worried the move to defund it would succeed,” Socarides says. “Now, what a difference.”
Congressional Republicans are under heavy pressure — from people inside the party who want it to broaden its national appeal — to evolve on gay rights. That RNC autopsy into what went wrong in 2012 called for more sensitivity to gay rights as a way of keeping pace with evolving attitudes among young conservatives. A recent WaPo poll found that support for the idea that the Constitution protects the right to gay marriage has hit 50 percent, with 60 percent of those aged 18-39 agreeing.
Family-oriented conservative groups may well criticize this latest move. But his time — unlike in 1998 — if there is no serious backlash among GOP lawmakers to speak of, it will be yet another sign of the speed with which the ground is shifting, and an indication that even Congressional Republicans are increasingly acknowledging the need to keep pace with the culture’s evolution on the issue.