Murphy Moves on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com July 08 2009 12:00 AM ET

Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania officially became the lead sponsor on the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal bill, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, on Tuesday night, but he's been stepping up efforts to get the bill moving for months.

Murphy has launched a new website, LetThemServe.com , where citizens and soldiers can weigh in on the policy and get updates on the bill. He is also joining forces with the Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers United on a national tour to discuss the negative effects of the policy with average citizens across the country.

He took time out Tuesday to speak with The Advocate about the road to repeal.

Advocate.com:I know there was some competition for this bill from other members like Susan Davis and Joe Sestak. How did you get the bill? Rep. Patrick Murphy: I was the first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress and I saw firsthand how this policy has hurt our military and has hurt our national security and I have the honor of serving on not just the Armed Services Committee but also the [Military] Personnel Subcommittee, which is where, for the first time in 15 years, we held a hearing on the policy last year. I was honored that I'll be able to quarterback this bill and I'm going to see that we get it done and put a bill on the president's desk to repeal it.

But in terms of securing the bill, did you have conversations with former representative Ellen Tauscher [the previous lead sponsor, who vacated her seat to accept a position in the State Department] early on and indicate that you would be interested? I did, and I had a great working relationship with Secretary Tauscher. We worked at that hearing last year and it's something she saw that I care deeply about, and that's when the cameras were on. But behind the scenes, talking to my colleagues in the Congress, on both sides of the aisle as well. And so I think I earned her support and I'm proud to take the lead on this.

What's the next step, the first thing you'll do to get this thing moving?I've been going member to member, especially since I've taken the lead -- we've gotten six new cosponsors on board, two members of leadership last week [representatives John Larson and Xavier Becerra], and we're doing the national kickoff at the National Press Club Tuesday. But I'm also doing a website petition to petition my fellow members of Congress, and we're going to be doing smaller press conferences in congressional districts to let people know why it's important now to change it.

The fact that we've let go over 13,000 troops since it's been implemented and over 65 Arabic translators -- that's over three combat brigades that we've let go. When we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need every qualified, able-bodied individual to serve.

What's the timeline for moving forward on this? There's still no bill in the Senate, which is not your concern in some ways. I know that House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton has agreed to hold hearings this year…Which was a big thing -- we had the subcommittee hearing last year, but that Chairman Skelton on the day I took over agreed to do a full committee hearing on it, was great progress. The folks in the Senate, they're on their own timeline, but it's up to us to get it to them. We're going to get this passed and the president has made it clear that if we put a bill on his desk to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," he'll sign it into law.

Is there any possibility of moving on it before the end of the year?I think the winds of change are in the air, and I'm very excited about the progress we're making. I'm going to meet with my colleagues again this week. This is not going to happen overnight though. I've been here long enough, in my whole two and a half years as a representative, to realize that it's going to take months and months of due diligence and tenacity. But that's what I bring to the table and that's why I'm launching this website and doing this national Press Club kickoff -- that's why we're doing smaller press conferences in congressional districts and that's why I'm meeting with members one-on-one -- because that's what it's going to take.

Tell me who this website is for? It's going to be for all Americans and all the troops to sign on and tell us their story of how it's affecting them, why they're for ending the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and to tell them what they can do to take action, updates on what we're doing here in Washington and around the country. So it's very exciting.

Where do the numbers stand on the road to getting 218 votes for passage?We've got 151 cosponsors -- I mentioned we got another one today and two from leadership last week -- that's more than we've ever had in the past and we're going to keep pushing. And when it comes up for a vote, we're going to pass this, and hopefully the Senate will do the right thing and put this on the president's desk.

Do you have any opinion about potentially using an executive order to stop discharges as an interim step to full repeal?The Congress passed this in 1993 and we should change the law to make it better, and frankly, to get rid of that. I can't sign an executive order, as you know, but what I can do is put a bill on the president's desk. I've got to focus on the task at hand. When I was on the rifle range back in 1993 when I first wore the uniform, the first thing I learned was, stay in your lane. Don't worry about what the other shooters are doing, just focus on the targets in your lane. And I'm focused on my lane here in the House of Representatives, because time is of the essence for our troops and for our country.

Did you ever serve with anyone who was out to you even if they weren't out in the military at large?Absolutely, sure I did. And that's why I think the policy is just wrong, and not just for national security interests, but you want people to be proud of who they are. When you wear the cloth of your country, you don't care what your battle buddy's race, creed, color, or orientation is, you worry if they can fire their M4 machine rifle, or whether they can kick down a door in Baghdad or Kabul.

Is there anything you'd like to add?I mentioned this in the hearings last year, but for those folks who think that if we overturn "don't ask, don't tell" that it's somehow going to affect unit cohesion -- the fact that they don't think that our troops are professional enough to respect someone else's sexual orientation is offensive, especially when you look at the fact that our two strongest allies in the world, Great Britain and Israel, allow their troops to serve openly along with 22 other countries. So I really question whether they have the full faith and confidence in our troops, because I know I do.

One last question: Is there a cultural generation gap that needs to be bridged here in order to change the military leadership's thinking on this?I think for some members, yes. But I think even some senior military leaders, people like Gen. Colin Powell, who is a personal hero of mine, he was one of the authors of "don't ask, don't tell" and he even said it's something we should reevaluate. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Gen. John Shalikashvili], hundreds and thousands of troops have said, "We've lived this life, we know what it's like." And especially the overwhelming majority of young Americans between 18 and 29 -- those folks that we're recruiting to come into our military -- have no problem with it, and frankly, they think the policy is wrong and [it] probably hurts recruitment efforts.