House Speaker John Boehner told journalists last week that a bill protecting LGBTs from workplace discrimination is “unnecessary.”
On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he believes there is “no need” for the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill that would create a federal law banning anti-LGBT workplace discrimination. This is really only a repeat of his earlier line that ENDA will cause more frivolous lawsuits. This idea has been thoroughly debunked a number of times, yet Boehner appears to be sticking to his story that ENDA isn’t needed.
His latest comments, made in response to a question from the LGBT news service the Washington Blade, come amid growing pressure to bring the bill to a House floor vote now that the U.S. Senate has passed the bill with bipartisan support.
“I am opposed to discrimination of any kind, in the workplace and any place else. But I think this legislation that I’ve dealt with as chairman of The Education & The Workforce Committee long before I was back in the leadership is unnecessary and would provide a basis for frivolous lawsuits. People are already protected in the workplace. I’m opposed to continuing this. Listen, I understand people have differing opinions on this issue, and I respect those opinions. But as someone who’s worked in the employment law area for all my years in the State House and all my years here, I see no basis or no need for this legislation.”
Why ENDA is Necessary
In 29 states it is still legal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation, including in Boehner’s own state of Ohio. Despite the Obama administration making clear that federal law does protect trans workers (they’re covered under sex discrimination), there are no explicit federal protections and so trans people remain vulnerable in at least 33 states.
To put that in context, about 52% of LGBTs in the United States live in states that do not offer explicit statutory workplace protections. As such, they risk being fired, denied work and denied promotion, all because of their sexuality or gender identity or expression.
In particular, the trans community continues to suffer high levels of unemployment.
In February of this year, CNNMoney spoke to a number of trans people hit hard by the recession, including Rebecca Juro who despite applying for almost 100 jobs and going on dozens of interviews has been unemployed for the past four years. She attributes that fact, in part, to her being trans. She claims some prospective employers have even “laughed [in her] face.”
A 2011 National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study, called Injustice at Every Turn, found that among a 6,000 national sample of trans people, the jobless rate was close to 14%. That’s double the national figure. Those rates also doubled for trans people of color. Of course, with higher unemployment comes a raft of other issues, like higher rates of homelessness, and particularly high rates of health problems such as depression and suicidal thoughts or acts.
Putting Boehner’s Resistance to ENDA in Context
The US Senate passed ENDA at the beginning of November with a bipartisan and veto proof majority of 64 to 32. Several Republican senators, including John McCain (R-Arizona) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), supported the bill as a basic matter of fairness.
While in the House no official headcount of support for ENDA exists, Democratic legislator Jared Polis (Colorado) is on record as saying he is confident that there are enough votes in the House to at least bring ENDA to the floor.
“I’ve had a number of discussions with both Republicans and a few Democrats that aren’t on the bill that they’re ready to vote for the bill, if not put their name on it [as co-sponsors],” Polis said in an interview. “We’re confident we can show the speaker and the majority leader that the House is ready to pass this important legislation and protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.”
A number of other legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have said they believe there is support enough to pass ENDA.
ENDA will need 218 votes to pass on a floor vote in the House of Representatives. The bill currently has 194 co-sponsors. That doesn’t include legislators that might favor the bill but don’t consider it a piece of legislation they would like to put their name to.
Key among the co-sponsors are five Republicans. They include Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.).
ENDA’s strong — and some say much too broad — religious exemptions have meant that Republican support has been easier to find than in previous years and, while it may not be an aspect of the bill all LGBT rights groups favor, it does appear to have boosted ENDA’s chances. In fact, it appears that ENDA has at least a reasonable chance of passing if it is brought to a floor vote. That is, if Boehner will allow the bill to reach the floor — something he has not yet said he will do.
Boehner’s messaging on the topic has been dismissive until now, but it seems he can no longer ignore ENDA. Above we see him making appeals to history and authority — that he has presided over employment law for a number of years and therefore that we should just trust his judgement that the bill isn’t needed. Given the raft of evidence to the contrary, it seems the Speaker is woefully misinformed or being willfully blind to the issue.
If Boehner does refuse to bring ENDA to the floor, it will scupper what is ENDA’s best chance in literally years, but it will probably cost the Republicans dearly.
Boehner will yet again betray the fact that he is operating only for the benefit of the ultra religious conservative wing of the Republican party. This is something that Democratic lawmakers are ready to seize upon to demonstrate just how out of step the Republican Party has become when compared to national public opinion which, whether leaning Democratic or Republican, favors ENDA’s basic employment protections for the LGBT community.
However, Boehner may still be able to save face by allowing the bill to a floor vote as a matter of procedural fairness while at the same time protesting the bill as unnecessary. This ENDA fight definitely isn’t over yet, but the senate vote in favor of the bill was a blow to House Republicans and a direct challenge to Speaker Boehner. It remains to be seen whether he’ll do the decent, and very necessary, thing and let the bill come up for a vote, but the chances of an ENDA victory have improved dramatically in recent weeks and that is, itself, something to celebrate.
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