It was an honor to attend yesterday's White House briefing on LGBT issues.
Many subjects were discussed, and I think all are worthy of discussion, so I'm going to take them one at a time. Yesterday I discussed the question I had asked on ENDA.
Today, let me start with the initial statement of Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes. She is very knowledgeable on LGBT issues and has worked hard on these issues throughout her long and distinguished career.
She offered a snapshot of the issues on which the Administration has been working.
I'll address the other topics discussed in the meeting in future posts.
The DPC coordinates domestic policy within the White House, offers advice to the President and supervises its execution within the Administration. Ms. Barnes was also the domestic policy adviser to the President's campaign. Before that she was Executive Vice President for policy at the Center for American Progress. From 1995 to 2003 she was Chief Counsel to Senator Edward Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before that she was Director of Legislative Affairs for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Assistant Counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. She has worked extensively on civil rights, voting rights and women's rights. She knows whereof she speaks.
She started by making a few comments. She noted that we have all heard, in the past week or so, the President talking about the issues that he believes are important, specifically with regard to LGBT rights.
"We believe that within the past 18 months we have taken more steps, and made more progress for the LGBT community than past Administrations have." However, she noted that she would not argue that change has come as fast as they have wanted it to in the area of LGBT issues, and that the same is true in other areas. She gave as an example the fact that it took a year and a half to get a health care bill done.
At the same time, even though the President shares that frustration, they have been able to take many steps forward, advancing the ball through executive action. Some of those have come in collaboration with the community, which they believe is very important. One of the recent examples is the memo the President sent to HHS on hospital visitation with regard to the LGBT community, to make sure that no one who is in a hospital has to go through a difficult or devastating experience without the support of their loved ones. The HHS Secretary then put out a proposed rule and sent a letter to the Hospital Association, and followed up with calls to ask them to move forward with this even as the regulatory process was still ongoing.
Similarly, there is action taking place at Housing and Urban Development with regard to grant recipients being required to follow state and local non-discrimination law. The State Department has taken action on passports for transgender individuals ensuring that a person going through gender transition can get their new gender reflected on their passport with appropriate certification. There was also removal of the HIV travel ban, which resulted in being able to bring a large HIV conference to the United States recently.
These are some the ways in which they have been able to act using executive powers. This has also acted as a signal to the many executive branch agencies, to show them how they can move forward on taking action to ensure that members of the LGBT community can have access to the types of benefits that straight couples are able to access.
At the same time, they have assisted with legislative action, in particular the hate crimes bill, a difficult task considering "what Congress is like right now."
"I'll be honest on this one," she said. "I think a lot of people have kind of banked that one, and said oh that's nice, and we got that done, and moved along. That one is kind of personal to me. I was working for Senator Kennedy when we first drafted the hate crimes bill." She also said "I think we were naive and thought that would be the easy bill, and we would get that passed quickly. We were doing that at the same time I was working on ENDA in 1996. It took a very long time to get that passed, a lot of hard work, a lot of heartbreak, and time and time again trying to deal with the Bush Administration to pass that one. That happened as the result of a lot of hard work and push, and our work with the Justice Department and Congress to get that one done."
She also acknowledged that, "at the same time, there's a lot that remains undone, that we're trying to move forward on. There are, as I referenced before, executive actions that are going through a comment and notice period, and we will move those through to the finish line. There are certainly the legislative initiatives, Don't Ask Don't Tell being primary among them, that we're moving forward on. The House has moved on that, and we're now waiting for action on the Senate floor. The same thing with regard to ENDA and DOMA and the Domestic Partnership Benefits Act that we've been working with Congress on. So the queue is full, but we're pressing forward, but the ball is in Congress's court now."
That is the snapshot she provided of the issues that her office and other executive offices in the Administration have been working on.
As I sit typing this, I wonder how it is that this very perceptive woman and I can have such a difference of viewpoint as to what these accomplishments mean.
To me, the analogy that comes to mind is that of a patient, stricken with some terrible illness, listening to the doctor speak. "I have been working so hard on so many fronts to try to keep it from spreading," says the doctor. "We have been successful in beating it back a little. Your leg, for instance, is looking a little better" "But doc," says the patient, "I need more medicine, more treatments, it's not enough to just beat it back a little. My arms are no better, and I can barely lift my head." "I know," sighs the doctor, "My other patients' are equally frustrated with me. But I've managed to help some others, like John Smith, for example. He's all better now." "What?" says the patient, "why are you telling me about your frustrations and your other patients, doc? Why don't you tell me what else you're going to do for me?" "Well," says the doctor, "you should be more patient and more grateful for the little things. This isn't an easy business, you know."
I'm not suggesting that Ms. Barnes was complacent or glib. She was not -- quite the reverse.
But the patient isn't concerned with the doctor's feelings, and for good reason. The patient is concerned with getting well, and that is as it should be. If my doctor suggested that I be satisfied with only slight progress, I would get another doctor, or at least a second opinion.
Ms. Barnes is a human being, and as such she deserve thanks for the good work she has been able to accomplish. But the LGBT community is a patient neglected for so long and with such damaging results, that we cannot be satisfied with small progress. Our people are going homeless and unemployed and discriminated against in so many areas that we expected to get some sort of special treatment from the doctor.
Perhaps in this we are allowing our own needs to win out over common sense. Perhaps, given the dysfunctionality of Congress, our expectations for receiving treatment from that Dr. Do-Little is ridiculous. But we cannot be expected to say thank you and be grateful while we are suffering under such conditions, and while the doctor is throwing up his hands and shrugging.
There is a disconnect here between the Administration's pointing to its list of accomplishments, which I agree is longer and better than any past Administration, and our sense of suffering under harsh discrimination.
Am I grateful for the actions that the Administration has taken? Undoubtedly the answer is yes. Am I satisfied with the progress? Undoubtedly the answer is no. Is there more the President can do to move the legislative agenda? Probably not until the next session of Congress. I think something could have been done a year ago. But what do I know? I'm just the patient.
This is part of a series of posts based on the White House briefing. The previous post in the series can be found here. The next in the series can be found here.