Lawmakers unveil bipartisan domestic partner benefits bills
"This is a country that prides itself on its equality and fairness to all so it is correct to bring those ideals into the regulations governing benefits for domestic partners of federal employees," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. "It is the right thing to do, and it will help us bring federal employment benefits squarely into the 21st century."
Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who co-chairs the Congressional Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Equality Caucus, introduced the 2009 Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act in the House. Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, unveiled the Senate version.
The legislation would give domestic partners access to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and other perks, including relocation assistance if an employee moves for a new federal job. In return, gay and lesbian employees would be required to abide by the same rules as their heterosexual counterparts on issues such as nepotism.
The bill's advocates have said it would bring the federal government in line with other large employers including many of the Fortune 500 companies, making it more competitive in attracting talent. Collins and Lieberman noted that such competitiveness will be particularly important as the federal government seeks to hire hundreds of thousands of young employees.
Leonard Hirsch, president of Federal GLOBE, the governmentwide affinity group for gay and lesbian employees, said an August 2008 survey of the organization's members suggested domestic partner benefits could provide a major incentive to join the government and stay there.
"A majority of our respondents knew federal employees who had left government service to be able to provide benefits for their families from private sector employers," Hirsch said in a statement releasing the survey results. "Not only is this a matter of simple fairness -- the government is well behind civil society in this regard and cannot compete effectively."
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said members frequently ask about the status of domestic partnership benefits. NTEU reached an agreement with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which operates under different pay and benefits rules than most federal agencies, to create a domestic partner benefits program. Kelley has said she hopes other agencies will use that program as a model.
For a full exploration of the debate over federal benefits for same-sex partners of employees, see Alyssa Rosenberg's feature story, "Foreign and Domestic," in the May 2009 issue of Government Executive.