Metro Weekly

Biden labels LGBT discrimination ‘barbaric,’ but mum on executive order

Joe Biden at HRC
Vice President Joe Biden speaking at the Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles Gala Dinner

Vice President Joe Biden urged Congress to outlaw LGBT workplace discrimination in a speech Saturday while making no mention of actions the Obama administration could take now to protect workers.

Speaking to the Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles Gala Dinner, the man credited with forcing President Barack Obama’s hand on marriage equality almost two years ago described the absence of LGBT workplace protections as “close to barbaric.”

“My grandkids, my children, and their kids are going to be shocked, it shocks the conscience that this very moment in American history, in some states, an employer can fire you just because of who you are, or who you love. It’s close to barbaric,” Biden told a crowd of more than 1,000 HRC supporters. “I mean think about this, a man, no I really mean this. Imagine, imagine, 20 years from now, as America looks back and say how in the hell could that have ever been allowed?”

Although Biden championed the Obama administration’s longstanding support for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would codify federal protections prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the White House’s puzzling opposition to an executive order that would do the same for federal contractors was absent from the vice president’s remarks.

For nearly two years Obama’s White House has been forced to defend a broken campaign promise made by Obama when he was a candidate for president in February 2008. It was then that Obama filled out a presidential-candidate questionnaire for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus indicating he would support a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity for federal contractors. In April 2012 White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told leaders from some of the nation’s largest LGBT-rights organizations that Obama would not sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Since that meeting, the White House has sought to defend its decision by telling supporters and the press that Obama supports passage of comprehensive federal legislation that will protect all workers, rather than just employees of federal contractors. LGBT advocates, as well as ENDA supporters on Capitol Hill, have pushed back against that White House position, arguing support for both. Executive orders already exist prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

With ENDA having hit a wall in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives after passage in the Senate last year, 168 members of the House and 52 senators — all Democrats or independents who caucus with Democrats — called on Obama to fulfill a promise made in his State of the Union address to make this a “year of action” in a letter sent earlier this month.

“As we continue to work towards final passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) with strong bipartisan support, we urge you to take action now to protection millions of workers across the country from the threat of discrimination simply because of who they are or who they love,” the letter states. “We are committed to doing all that we can in Congress to get ENDA to your desk this year; however, there is no reason you cannot immediately act by taking this important step.”

The letter comes after Obama announced at the beginning of this year a shifting strategy to use his pen to take executive action when Congress won’t act. While that strategy has been applied to minimum wage, with Obama signing an executive order to raise minimum wage for federal contractors while the White House still pushes for federal legislation raising the minimum wage for all Americans, the White House has found itself in a contradictory position on the executive order for LGBT federal contractors. Asked last month by Metro Weekly why sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors if the strategy is comprehensive federal legislation, White House press secretary Jay Carney responded simply, “I take your point.”

Now, with Democrats on Capitol Hill seemingly unified in their support for Obama taking action now as ENDA sits in the House of Representatives, the most LGBT-friendly White House in history has found itself increasingly on the defensive.

“I don’t have any update for you on proposed or possible executive orders,” Carney told reporters in response to questions about the letter sent by 220 lawmakers. “As I’ve said before, opposition to [ENDA] is contrary to the tide of history, and that those lawmakers who oppose this will find in the not too distant future that they made a grave mistake and that they will regret it.”

In his speech to HRC supporters in Los Angeles, which focused largely on the Obama administration’s foreign policy toward nations that enact anti-LGBT laws, Biden described opposition to ENDA as “outrageous.” But it would have been just as easy to substitute the executive order once supported by President Obama for Biden’s discussion of ENDA.

“The country’s moved on. The American people have moved on, it’s time for the Congress to move on, and pass ENDA. Pass ENDA now. Not tomorrow, now!” Biden said. “If you think about it, it’s outrageous we’re even debating this subject. I really mean it. I mean it’s almost beyond belief that today, in 2014, I could say to you, as your employee in so many states, you’re fired, because of who you love. I mean think about that. It is bizarre, no-no-no, it really is. It really is, I didn’t even think most Americans even know that employers can do that.”

Asked if organization representatives brought up the executive order with Biden at Saturday’s event, HRC Vice President Fred Sainz said, “At every point, we routinely point out the unfinished agenda to the administration, the executive order included.”

[Image: Joe Biden, screenshot via YouTube.]

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