Obama takes executive action on wages, absent on LGBT nondiscrimination

Posted by Justin Snow
January 28, 2014 12:52 PM |

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After vowing earlier this month to take executive action on key issues if Congress won't act, President Obama will sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

While part of his broader push to combat income inequality, which is expected to be a focal point his State of the Union address tonight, the move has heightened attention on Obama's failure to fulfill a campaign promise he made while running for president in 2008.

It was then that Obama filled out a presidential-candidate questionnaire for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, indicating that if he were elected president he would sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Six years later, that promise has gone unfilled as the White House has backtracked on Obama's promise and instead pushed for comprehensive federal legislation in the form of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would protect most workers.

But Obama's new push for executive action — particularly when it concerns federal contractors, as in the case of the executive order announced today — has frustrated advocates who have long been puzzled by the White House's decision to just push for ENDA and not protect some workers from discrimination today with only the flick of the president's pen.

"President Obama's new executive order on the minimum wage does increase our expectation that he will keep his promise of taking executive action for LGBT workplace protections,” Tico Almeida, founder and president of Freedom to Work, told Metro Weekly. "He's vowed to deliver a 'year of action' in 2014, and of all of the possibilities on the table, an LGBT executive order is among the easiest and most politically popular." A Freedom to Work petition urging Obama to sign an executive order for federal contractors has reached almost 190,000 signatures.

Advocates are hopeful Obama will call on Congress to pass ENDA during tonight's speech, and it would not be surprising if he were to do so. ENDA was approved by the Senate 64-32 in November, with the support of 10 Republicans. However, the legislation has hit a roadblock in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner has indicated it unlikely he will even allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote. But it is just that kind of gridlock that has led Obama to threaten to use his pen when Congress won't act and renewed calls by advocates to act on an LGBT executive order.

"With the newly publicized commitment of the administration to take action where Congress has left off, prohibiting discrimination by contractors is a tailor-made solution to the President's expressed aims," Human Rights Campaign spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz told Metro Weekly. "President Obama has a real opportunity to improve the lives of LGBT people by calling on Congress to pass ENDA and also take immediate executive action to address anti-LGBT discrimination." 

White House press secretary Jay Carney would not say explicitly if Obama believes LGBT workplace discrimination contributes to income inequality in the United States, instead taking the opportunity to reiterate Obama's support for ENDA instead of an executive order.

"The President believes that we ought to pass an Employment Non-Discrimination Act because it’s the right thing to do for LGBT Americans and it’s the right thing to do for our economy, full stop," Carney told reporters Monday. "So I don't have a particular analysis behind that because the sentiment is pretty clear." 

Carney declined to provide details on what would be contained in Obama's speech. Meanwhile, ENDA gained another co-sponsor in the House, Rep. Jared Polis's office announced Tuesday. New York Rep. Michael Grimm — a Republican — marks ENDA's 200th co-sponsor. 

"We will keep pushing for an ENDA vote in the House of Representatives in 2014, and we hope the President will use the State of the Union Address to call for that vote, but the very best thing he can do right now is lead by example and sign the executive order," Almedia said. "Whether or not the LGBT executive order makes it into the State of the Union, this issue will not go away."

[Photo: Barack Obama. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.]

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