Senator Joseph Lieberman, chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, presided over hearings today on S. 2521, the bill that would provide domestic partners -- same-sex only -- with the benefits now extended to spouses of government employees. You can watch the hearings here. Kudos to Maine Senator Susan Collins, the Committee's ranking Republican, whose opening remarks pointed out that her state, Maine, allows different-sex couples to register as domestic partners. Maine couples do not get many concrete benefits as registered domestic partners, but the principle that registration should not be limited to same-sex couples is sound. (Colleen Kelley, National President of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), who testified at the hearing, departed from her written testimony to say that she would support the expansion presented by Senator Collins.)
When domestic partner registration is limited to same-sex couples, it sends the message that marriage is the proper dividing between relationships that count and those that don't, and that the only reason to extend recognition to same-sex couples is to compensate for the inequality of denying such couples the ability to marry.
As I have written about in a prior post, we need a different approach. Let's ask: why do we extend employee benefits beyond the employee to another family member? If we are helping the employee provide for his or her family, then it should not matter how that family is configured. We need equality across family forms, not just between heterosexual couples who marry and same-sex couples who can't marry (but would if they could...sometimes an explicit requirement to qualify for benefits, as Yvette Burton of IBM testified at the hearing). There's a good example from the public sector in the policy of Salt Lake City, Utah, which allows an employee to cover any person with whom he or she lives in an economically interdependent relationship.
Dr. Burton testified the issue for IBM is equal pay for equal work (and avoided directly answering a question from Sen. Collins about covering unmarried different-sex couples). How about equal pay for equal work for all family configurations?
The Deputy Regional Director of the FDIC, Frank Hartigan, testified at the hearing about "presenteeism," the problem of a worker who comes to work but who is distracted and preoccupied by family stress such as the higher costs of caring for a medically uninsured partner or anxiety about providing for a partner upon relocation or retirement. Well, that can happen no matter how a family is configured, and marriage or its same-sex functional equivalant should not be a requirement.
Of course, since I live in Washington, DC and have friends who work for the government, I know how the denial of benefits hurts same-sex couples. If I thought benefits for same-sex couples would be the first step on the way to equality for all family forms, I'd be ecstatic. And I am furious that the Deputy Director of the US Office of Personnel Management, Howard Weizmann, explicitly opposed this bill. (He cited I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry as proof that fraud would be a problem; IBM's Dr. Burton testified from the real world, not Hollywood, that fraud is not a problem). Of course, as Lieberman said at the beginning of the hearing, even this bill is going nowhere this session, and we all know the election on November 4 will determine much about family policy and LGBT rights for years to come...