Former Rep. Barney Frank isn't buying arguments that the signing of an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity would build momentum for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
In an interview with Metro Weekly shortly after the 113th Congress was sworn in Jan. 3, the Massachusetts Democrat and former champion of ENDA in the House said President Barack Obama's delay in signing the executive order, which Obama indicated he would support as a presidential candidate in 2008, should not be interpreted as anti-LGBT.
"That's a pretty far-reaching policy decision to be made by the executive alone and the Republicans have made a lot of arguments and have scored some points by arguing he has done too much executive power without congressional approval. So I think it is unfair to impugn their reluctance to sign that," said Frank. "It's a reluctance to do too many things by executive order and feed into their argument that there’s an executive overreach."
Advocates have pushed the White House to sign such an executive order, which would apply to contractors who do more than $10,000 of work with the federal government and affect 26 million workers. Many believe Obama could help refocus attention on ENDA and cast a spotlight on legislation that has widespread public support but has faced Republican opposition for decades. According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, the White House remains focused on securing passage of comprehensive federal legislation in the form of ENDA rather than an executive order that would only apply to federal contractors.
"[The executive order] would be hugely helpful to ENDA efforts on the Hill, which the White House has made clear it supports," Jeff Krehely, vice president of LGBT research at the Center for American Progress, told Metro Weekly last month. "Although we know the rates of anti-LGBT discrimination are high, we also know that many Americans already think federal laws exist to prevent and crack down on this type of discrimination."
Frank, however, disagrees: "That argument is dumb. D-U-M-B. Dumb."
"The problem is partisan," Frank said, adding that while polling indicates many Americans believe workplace protections already exist for LGBT people, "political action does not necessarily mean other people see things more."
"I guarantee you the Republican members of Congress who vote against it know that," Frank said. "It's not that people don't know there's discrimination, it's that the Republicans think it's a good thing."
Frank's comments come after he and 71 other lawmakers signed a letter in April urging Obama to sign the executive order, linking its implementation to congressional action on ENDA.
"This order would extend important workplace protections to millions of Americans, while at the same time laying the groundwork for Congressional passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a goal that we share with you," the letter read in part, noting that polls show "support for such protections transcends partisan, age and religious lines."
Nevertheless, Frank argues approval of ENDA will only come when Democrats control all three branches of the federal government.
"The problem is the Republicans control the House," said Frank, "and as long as the Republicans control the House nothing will pass."
Several groups have publicly urged action on the executive order since Obama's re-election, including the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Work, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Protections already exist prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
Noting the long history of executive action to protect employees of federal contractors from discrimination, Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida believes the historical record will counter any arguments of executive overreach.
"If any opponents make the overreach argument after President Obama signs this LGBT executive order, we will be able to point to seventy years of American history with both Republican Presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic presidents like Lyndon Johnson signing executive orders banning workplace discrimination against African-Americans and women who work for federal contractors," Almeida said via email.
HRC declined to address Frank's arguments, simply reiterating the organization's continued commitment to seeing such an executive order signed by the president.
"As far back as FDR, presidents have prohibited federal contractors from engaging in racial discrimination, and we think President Obama should build on these past measures to stop the discriminatory practices against LGBT employees," said HRC spokesman Kevin Nix in a statement. "Such a move would be a concrete step toward full equality."
Although no longer a member of Congress for the first time in three decades, Frank remains a potent voice in the LGBT rights movement and may not be done in Washington just yet. With Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) expected to be confirmed as secretary of state, Frank is openly jockeying for the temporary appointment to Kerry's Senate seat.
[Photo: Barney Frank (Credit: Todd Franson/Metro Weekly).]
Read Metro Weekly's full interview with former Rep. Barney Frank on newsstands and online Jan. 17.