Wednesday, June 17, 2009

We Have Made Our Point

President Obama signed the memorandum giving some federal employees a few benefits (a clip of the event is below), having scrambled to respond to the outcry over the DOMA brief. It's too little, too late to a constituency that has felt like it is completely off the radar for months, and then suddenly felt under attack rather than protected by the man who promised so much.

The administration did itself a lot of damage, likely following overcautious advice that is out of step with the world today (a throwback to the 90s and the Clinton era -- yes, the presence of Rahm) and just being disorganized at the DOJ and not paying attention to a very political case. Surely, they didn't want to wake up to a New York Times lead editorial pointing to the president's apparent lack of sincerity. Let's hope it's shaken them up enough that today's event was the beginning of a new direction and more action, as lacking as the action today itself was.

A couple of things I want to clarify:

1) a memorandum apparently is, as Rachel Maddow noted, relatively interchangeable with the term executive order, in that both expire when the president leaves and do not have to be followed by the next administration. (Some of the thinking out there was that a memorandum expires but an executive order does not). My understanding after speaking with some people who know about this is that a memorandum is in fact broader (ordering a directive in a broad sense to an agency) while an executive order is specific to one, more narrow action. (Obama, by the way, used the term executive order when he signed the memorandum today, as well as the word memorandum.)

2) Health care benefits are not being given, as reported and predicted all day, but Obama did today back legislation in Congress that would give such benefits to federal workers. So yes, the actual benefits these federal workers got from his signature -- and it doesn't include members of the military -- are relatively little, and far below most of the Fortune 500 companies, which give full health benefits to domestic partners. The big thing the admistration is touting is that the federal workers will get the ability to pay into a long-term care insurance program -- woo hoo!

Why can't they be given health benefits and retirement benefits by executive order/memorandum? My understanding -- and if it's not correct I'm open to being corrected -- is because the statutes covering such benefits for federal workers specifically uses the word "spouse" while the long-term care insurance only specifies a beneficiary, who can be anyone. Thus, legislation is needed to specifically deem "domestic partners" as covered. (And in those few states where gays and lesbians do have "spouses" because they can get married, the Defense of Marriage Act prevents them from being recognized by the federal government.)

Obama needed to do this event five months ago. Now it is just not adequate to quell the anger, and he really needs to move fast on something else, be it DOMA or DADT. We made our point, got their attention, put the DNC fundraiser in jeopardy, got a lot of media focused on the president's broken promises and lack of passion on our issues. That's all good. And we have to keep the pressure up.