“We want our country to be represented by the best, and that can’t happen when an entire community is excluded,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event yesterday entitled, “Domestic Partner Benefits.” The event focused on the need to provide full spousal benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees in same-sex partnerships.
John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund delivered opening remarks, followed by Albright’s speech, and a roundtable discussion with Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the first openly gay person elected to Congress. A personal reflection by former Ambassador to Romania, Michael Guest closed the event.
Last December, Smith and Baldwin introduced the bipartisan Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act in the Senate and House, respectively. The legislation would provide domestic partnership benefits to all federal civilian employees on the same basis as spousal benefits, and would also be available for same-sex domestic partners of federal employees. Currently, federal employees are unable to purchase domestic partner benefits such as health insurance, retirement programs, and compensation for work injuries.
Throughout the speech and the discussion, all participants stressed the need for a change in policy for several distinct reasons. First of all, providing domestic partner benefits would be helpful for federal employers who may lose talented workers to the private sector and corporate world.
“At one point, it could be a critical retention issue,” said Podesta. He explained that current projections report the cost of providing these benefits as $260 million dollars over 10 years, a small fraction of the federal budget.
Baldwin agreed about the possible loss of a skilled workforce, citing an example in Wisconsin in which an engineer employed at a state university moved to a different job because it could provide domestic partner benefits. With his talent, he brought an amount of grant money that would have covered the cost of instituting those benefits for the entire state.
Beyond the employer perspective, Smith explained another purely financial motive: enlarging the number of people insured. While opponents complain about the cost of the program, ranks of uninsured relying on emergency rooms cost the government dearly, he said.
The discussants and speakers also stressed the moral principle guiding the proposed change in policy. In his opening remarks, Podesta pinpointed equality as a founding principle of the United States. “Our country has struggled to live up to that ideal for 200 years,” he said, “It doesn’t extend to the gay community.”
Albright elaborated on Podesta’s remarks, saying that the “fundamental question of equal treatment under the law is basic.” Toward the end of the event, Guest, while clarifying that he was not equating this with the fight for African-American civil rights, still emphasized that not providing these benefits was discrimination.
Financial considerations surrounding this change were discussed, but the moral justification was key. As Smith said, “When you do the right thing, there’s a benefit.”
While Smith and Baldwin agreed that the bill making its way through legislature would have to wait for a change in administration, both were hopeful about its chances at that point. “I think with a new Congress and new president, the stage is set,” Smith said.
He still praised the work being done in Congress currently, as the bill is gathering support. Smith said he could think of a dozen Republican senators who would vote for the bill. In addition, Baldwin recently formed a House of Representatives LGBT Equality Caucus, which is “playing that educational role that’s so powerful and important,” she said.
The discussion also touched upon issues of gay marriage legality and the prominence of young voters, but the consensus of all involved was that the current lack of federal domestic partner benefits demanded a change in policy.
“Employment comes with health benefits,” Smith said. “No one should be discriminated against.”