By Sunnivie Brydum and Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com June 19 2014 4:00 AM ET
Even as President Obama makes plans to substitute congressional action with an executive order, advocates aren't giving up on getting a real federal law.
A new lobbying effort announced today by Freedom to Work presses for the long-stalled legislation, called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would require all employers with more than 15 workers to abide by a comprehensive nondiscrimination law that protects employees from being fired, not hired, not promoted, or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Meanwhile, Obama plans to sign an executive order as a stopgap prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination in employment among federal contractors.
The legislation has been introduced in some form in every Congress but one since 1996, and last year, for the first time, passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support. In its current iteration, ENDA includes protections for transgender Americans — a once-controversial inclusion that nonetheless garnered "aye" votes from 10 Senate Republicans last November.
But since that historic passage, Speaker of the House John Boehner has repeatedly refused to introduce ENDA in the House, telling reporters in January that there was "no way" ENDA would pass this year. Despite Boehner's inexplicable claims that current state law already protects LGBT workers from employment discrimination, an employer can indeed fire a worker for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual in 29 states, while transgender people can be fired for their identity in 32 states.
Frustrated with the speaker's intransigence — in the face of ongoing reports of LGBT Americans being discriminated against in the workplace — and wanting broader protections than those offered by the president's forthcoming executive order, advocates are looking to build bipartisan support for the stalled legislation in the House of Representatives.
One of the organizations leading that charge is Freedom to Work, a Washington, D.C.-based group launching a new campaign today, known as the 218 Project. The campaign looks to add momentum for ENDA's passage in the House by securing 218 cosponsors to the legislation.
"We’re launching the 218 Project to help persuade the next most likely ENDA supporters — both Democrats and Republicans — to put their names behind the bill as cosponsors," Christian Berle, Freedom to Work's legislative director, tells The Advocate exclusively. "The goal is to prove that we’ve got a House majority of 218 sponsors to make the case that the time is now to bring ENDA up for a long overdue vote."
Throughout the summer, Freedom to Work will make weekly announcements identifying groups of five potential ENDA sponsors who are as yet uncommitted to voting for or cosponsoring the legislation. Using shareable graphics hosted on the 218 Project's website, Freedom to Work will encourage constituents to contact their lawmakers and those in other districts through Facebook, Twitter, email, and phone, urging uncommitted representatives to add their names to the growing list of ENDA cosponsors in the House.
Just last week, New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo announced he is joining the ranks of representatives cosponsoring ENDA, bringing the legislation's total cosponsor count to 205. Eight of those cosponsors are Republicans, including Colorado representative Mike Coffman, who announced his sponsorship in April.
"Over the past year, Freedom to Work has done lobby visits with every single undecided House member’s office — from the eight holdout Democrats to the moderate Republicans to the most conservative members — and we’re convinced ENDA would pass if it were put on the House floor for a vote," says Freedom to Work's Berle. "Rep. Nancy Pelosi has said that the votes are there right now to pass ENDA in the current House, and our lobby visits confirm that on that point she is correct."
While the advocacy group is launching its 218 Project as a way to build support for the embattled legislation, its leaders are aware there are multiple ways to pressure House leadership to take up ENDA. One of those tactics would be filing what is known as a discharge petition, which requires a majority of representatives to cast a vote directly overriding the speaker's refusal to introduce the legislation. While Freedom to Work does support such a strategy — which would be a separate effort from the attempt to secure a House majority of cosponsors — the organization also supports other tactics, including attaching ENDA to the Defense Authorization Bill in the Senate. For now, however, the group says it is focused on increasing ENDA's cosponsors to demonstrate that the bill has bipartisan, majority support. Getting to 218 cosponsors, the group contends, would help place pressure on any concurrent or subsequent effort to move the legislation in 2014.
Meet the first five representatives who Freedom to Work believes could sponsor ENDA:
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Freedom to Work says Diaz-Balart might be a good candidate to join ENDA's cosponsors because he voted in favor of the 2007 version of the bill, and he also voted in favor of the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. Still, his office did not respond to a request for comment on the current bill.
While he has not cosponsored any of the other major pieces of LGBT-specific legislation introduced during this session, he did vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, which is the first version of the act to include protections and services for LGBT victims of violence. He is one Republican legislator who has been targeted by an effort by the Human Rights Campaign, Log Cabin Republicans, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Service Employees International Union earlier this year, backed financially by Republican billionaires Paul Singer and Seth Klarman.
Rep. David Jolly
Jolly is a new member, as he won special election in March. He now represents St. Petersburg and Sarasota, two Florida municipalities with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances and significant LGBT populations.
Though his time in office has been short, the congressman has not cosponsored any of the major pieces of LGBT-related legislation introduced in the House. Jolly's staff did say that he is still examining whether he would be a cosponsor of ENDA.
During his campaign, he said marriage should be a statewide issue, and he told reporters this week, that if the Republican Party is going to advocate for less government intervention, "that also means on issues of everybody's faith. And so if a state chooses to embrace same-sex marriage, then that's a constitutional privilege that reflects the tenets of a less-government party."
Rep. Tom Reed
Republican, New York
Like Diaz-Balart, Reed voted for the LGBT-inclusive VAWA in 2013, which would indicate some support on LGBT issues. But most importantly, he indicated to media that he does plan to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act if it comes up for a vote.
Reed's office did not respond to a request for comment on the possibility of his cosponsorship of the bill, but he has not cosponsored any of the major pieces of LGBT-related legislation introduced in the House. Currently three fellow New York Republicans are cosponsors: representatives Christopher Gibson, Richard Hanna, and Michael Grimm.
Rep. Gene Greene
During his time in office, Green has voted in favor of multiple LGBT-related bills, including the 2007 version of ENDA, the 2009 hate-crimes act, "don't ask, don't tell" repeal in 2010, and the LGBT-inclusive VAWA in 2013. He also represents Houston (the mayor of which is out lesbian Annise Parker), where a local nondiscrimination ordinance was passed earlier this spring to protect LGBT citizens.
Green is a cosponsor of the Safe Schools Improvement Act, but his office did not respond to a request for comment on cosponsoring ENDA. The Houston Press reports that he does support the bill but is not yet ready to sign on as a cosponsor.
"I am opposed to discrimination in the workplace, whether based on gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, and will vote in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act when it comes to the House floor for a vote," Green said.
Rep. Pete Gallego
While Gallego has voiced opposition to marriage equality, according to the Dallas Voice, he has indicated that he would vote for ENDA if it reaches the House floor.
“Congressman Gallego’s family has a long history of protecting civil rights and opposing discrimination,” Gallego's spokesman Jorge Borjon told the Washington Blade in April. “Like his parents before him, Congressman Gallego is also opposed to any form of discrimination, including discrimination against individuals based on race, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, religion, age, disability or personal beliefs.”
Gallego is also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which announced its support for ENDA in 2013.