Wednesday was a day of bipartisan harmony — at least in two congressional panels.
In the Senate, a committee passed legislation allowing same-sex spouses of federal workers to receive employment benefits. In the House, subcommittee members on a panel often riven with partisanship took testimony on the Hatch Act and everyone agreed it needs fixing.
First, let’s look at the bipartisan voice vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act.
Coming just days after President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage, the bill could have been a lightning rod for that controversy. But with the absence of Republicans who oppose the bill, which by the way has a Republican sponsor, it sailed through with little discussion.
The legislation covers only same-sex domestic partners who are not married, because marriage largely is not available to them. For federal purposes, the Defense of Marriage Act limits marriage to heterosexual unions. Married same-sex couples and unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners are not covered by the bill, which must be approved by the full Senate and the House.
Limiting the provisions to unmarried same-sex partners means those who are married would have to divorce to obtain the benefits, said Bob Hall, a retired Environmental Protection Agency staffer who is in a same-sex marriage in the District, where it is legal.
“That’s bizarre,” he said.
Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who introduced the bill, said it “has nothing to do with same-sex marriage.” It does “right an existing injustice that penalizes one class of federal employees by limiting their benefits versus what their fellow federal workers receive.”
Those benefits include health, long-term care and life insurance; retirement, disability, workers’ compensation and death benefits; and family medical and emergency leave.
“We are not blazing new trails here,” Lieberman said. “Today, almost 10,000 private-sector companies of all sizes provide benefits to domestic partners and that includes 60 percent of all Fortune 500 companies. . . . The same is true for the governments of 24 states — including my home state of Connecticut — and about 154 local jurisdictions, and 300 colleges and universities.”
The bill’s other sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the panel’s top Republican, said the list of companies providing the benefits includes “top federal contractors.”
“This change is both fair policy and good business practice,” she said. “The federal government must compete with the private sector when it comes to attracting the most qualified, skilled and dedicated employees.”
Across Capitol Hill, the House federal workforce subcommittee took testimony on the Hatch Act Modernization Act with almost uncommon comity. There is broad agreement that the Hatch Act, which regulates the political activity of federal employees and some other public workers, needs repair.
The big issue concerns rules affecting state and local government workers. The law prohibits them from running for partisan elective office if they are in some way linked to federal funds, and that link can be very tenuous.
In May, we wrote about Matthew Arlen, a Philadelphia transit cop who could not run for the school board because his police dog gets federal funds, which cover the animal’s upkeep and a portion of Arlen’s salary as the handler.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Arlen’s case is not unique,” said Carolyn N. Lerner, who heads the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act. “OSC similarly advised a paramedic in South Carolina that he could not run for county coroner because some of the patients he transports are Medicaid recipients. In another matter, OSC told a deputy controller that she could not run for county tax collector because some of her duties included auditing a federally funded program. In addition, OSC routinely advises deputy sheriffs that they are ineligible to run for sheriff” because many police agencies get federal money.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), would allow state and local employees to seek partisan office. It also would allow District employees to be treated as other state and local workers and not subject to provisions applying to federal employees. The bill would revise the penalty for violation, which generally is termination.
The penalty structure “is overly restrictive, can lead to unjust results and may even deter agencies from referring potential violations to OSC,” Lerner told the hearing.
The prohibition on state and local workers also gives their political opponents a hammer, justified or not.
“An allegation that an individual has violated federal law, even in the absence of wrongdoing or specific evidence, can cast a cloud over a candidacy,” Lerner said.
“In this way, the Hatch Act is increasingly being used as a political weapon.”