President Barack Obama handed the gay community a victory this week by granting hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners, but gay rights advocates say the offering is mere peanuts compared with what they expect him to do for them this year.
Obama on Thursday directed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to initiate rules to ensure that hospitals participating in Medicare or Medicaid allow patients to designate who may visit them and who can be a surrogate decision-maker in emergencies. These rights are now restricted to immediate family or to individuals who are legally related.
“Gay and lesbian Americans … are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives, unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated,” Obama said in announcing the new rules. “My administration can … ensure that patients can receive compassionate care and equal treatment during their hospital stays.”
Congressional backers of gay rights said the president’s action marks progress and said it sends a strong message about his support for the gay community.
“This is a critical step in ending discrimination against [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] families and ensuring that, in the event of a hospital stay, all Americans have the right to see their loved ones,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), one of three openly gay House Members, said Obama’s decision “puts us another step closer toward our goal of equal rights for all Americans and I applaud his decision.”
But gay rights advocates say that while they welcome the news, the president needs to do far more than make administrative changes if he is serious about getting Congress to act on their top priorities.
“There is definitely frustration in the community” with both Obama and Congress, said Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest civil rights group focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.
“This latest move on hospital visitation is welcome but it is definitely not a panacea and it is not enough.”
Herwitt called on Obama to play a bigger role on two key issues this year: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the 1993 military policy that bars openly gay and lesbian soldiers from serving.
“Moving legislation through Congress is a partnership with the administration. Obviously Congress needs to take the vote to pass ENDA and Congress needs to take the vote to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but the need for the administration to be publicly advocating for these moves is part of a symbiotic relationship,” Herwitt said.
In the absence of legislative action, Obama has used his authority on numerous occasions to make smaller changes that have appealed to gays, including lifting the travel and immigration ban that barred HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering the country unless they had a waiver. He also directed federal agencies to examine the extent by which they can extend benefits to same-sex partners of employees under current rules, and he directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take steps to ensure that federal housing programs don’t discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or gender.
“There are things certainly the president and the administration have been doing in terms of what directly impacts the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community,” said a White House official.
One top Democratic strategist said gay rights advocates should give more credit to the president for taking steps to advance their agenda, even if it is incrementally.
“The White House will always look for things they can do to advance policy goals that they don’t need to get votes on,” said the strategist. “This is one way to do that. People should be grateful for that and applaud them for it.”
Congress has been inching closer to addressing some of the gay community’s priorities, however. House Democratic leaders are signaling that action on workplace discrimination legislation is at the top of their agenda. This week, Pelosi said to expect action on ENDA “soon.”
A version of the employment discrimination ban cleared the chamber in 2007 by a comfortable margin, including support from 35 Republicans. But that measure excluded protections for transgender people. Democratic leaders and gay rights groups are so far insisting on a broader ban, though the transgender protection has the potential to spook both supportive Republicans and battle-weary moderate Democrats eyeing tough re-election fights.
Backers, led by Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay, started surveying lawmakers this week to determine support. “People have an opportunity to vote with their feet,” the strategist said. “Nobody is going to bring these things up to lose. They’ll look at the whip count and decide if it’s doable.”
Gay rights advocates are still hoping to move a “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban in the Defense authorization bill later this spring. But some proponents have questioned whether the administration is committed to pursuing it this year.
On another front, the House ethics committee this week circulated draft instructions directing legally married same-sex couples filing Congressional financial disclosure forms to adhere to the same reporting requirements as opposite-sex married couples.
The instructions were posted on both the ethics committee’s and the Clerk of the House’s Web sites along with financial disclosure forms for calendar year 2009, which must be submitted by May 15. But after Roll Call inquired about the change, the instructions were removed from both Web sites.
Supporters and opponents of gay marriage rights said the ethics committee guidance would violate the Defense of Marriage Act, which explicitly prohibits the federal government from applying spousal obligations or benefits to same-sex couples.
It is not clear whether the ethics committee is reconsidering the language of the instructions. None of the panel’s members would comment on the new instructions, and Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill would not say whether the Speaker knew about the proposed rule change.
“We don’t comment on draft recommendations,” Hammill said.
Paul Singer contributed to this report.