If the bill is passed, the partners of gay federal employees would have access to health benefits, life insurance, disability, travel and other benefits.
While the term “domestic partner” is in the title of the bill, no formal relationship recognition would be necessary for the partners of gay employees to be eligible for benefits.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), has scheduled the Wednesday hearing, which takes place during the final week of the congressional session before lawmakers break to run their re-election campaigns. The hearing marks the first time this session that lawmakers have considered benefits for gay federal employees. A floor vote is not expected this year.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the only out lesbian in Congress, introduced a companion bill in the House, but the chamber has taken no action on it.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, witnesses that were scheduled to appear at the hearing included Yvette Burton, a human resources executive for gay employees at IBM; Frank Hartigan, a San Francisco-based deputy regional director for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. who is testifying on his own behalf; Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union; and a witness from the American Federation of Government Employees.
The witnesses did not immediately respond to the Blade’s requests for comment.
Michael Hager, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, which handles benefits for gay federal employees, also was invited to testify, but it was unclear whether he would attend.
Lara Schwartz, legal director for HRC, said if the bill passes, the change would be “enormous” for gay federal employees.
“There are employees who do incredible work for the federal government and are paid less than their colleagues because their families are denied these benefits, so for them, this is a complete change,” she said.
Schwartz said passing the bill would allow the federal government to better compete for “the best and the brightest” workers.
Without the legislation, potential workers may be deterred from working for the federal government because it “can’t adequately provide for their families,” she said.
In the past, Schwartz said, the federal government “has set the standard” for companies in providing benefits to employees, so advancing the government on this issue could influence other businesses to offer similar benefits to their gay employees.
Schwartz said the legislation could have a particularly large impact in D.C. because so many local residents are employees of the federal government.
But Michael Guest, a former U.S. ambassador to Romania who retired in protest from the State Department last year, criticized lawmakers for taking too long to address the legislation. Guest said he was skeptical that the hearing would have any impact.
Guest, who has been a vocal proponent of the bill, said the committee moved the hearing from April to June to September, leaving “absolutely no chance” for a vote this session.
“There’ll be some people that say it’s still good to have the hearing for its symbolism,” he said. “I frankly prefer results.”
Guest noted that the bill would have to be introduced again next session and lawmakers would have to make an additional effort to get the legislation on the calendar again.
While the former ambassador said the legislation would “take care of the primary concerns” for many gay federal employees, the bill would not address the reason he retired in protest — the difficulties faced by gay Foreign Service officers with partners.
Access to medical care, training and emergency evacuations due to violent disruptions in a foreign country are not covered in the bill, Guest said.
“Those simply require a State Department leadership that is committed to equality, which we don’t have right now,” he said.