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The House Just Disappointed LGBT People, Again

The House Just Disappointed LGBT People, Again

Emily Cain

A step toward equality was thwarted by one vote, and that's completely unacceptable, writes congressional candidate Emily Cain.

Every single vote matters. Sounds cliche, I know, but last week a single vote turned the tide on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. That one vote put the careers and livelihoods of thousands of LGBT Americans on the line.

The vote in question was on an amendment sponsored by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the first openly gay person to be elected to Congress from New York State. If approved and added to the National Defense Authorization Act, it would have stopped federal contracts from going to companies that discriminate against LGBT employees. In short, it would ban using our tax dollars to subsidize hate.

The amendment was simple and mirrors the nondiscrimination laws on the books in many states, including the one here in Maine that has been law for more than a decade. I was proud to be a cosponsor and strong ally of that law when it was passed in the Maine Legislature.

In post-Obergefell America, Rep. Maloney's antidiscrimination provision seems basic, but in 28 states there are no laws blocking discrimination against LGBT workers. With billions of federal dollars on the line, this amendment would ensure that all contractors play by fair rules. The only current ban on discrimination by federal contractors is an executive order from President Obama -- easily overturned by President Trump or by Congress, which had voted to do exactly that the day before.

Nondiscrimination against LGBT Americans should be the universal law of the land across the United States, but until it is, the least we can do is prevent federal funding from going to those who discriminate.

Discrimination is wrong. It also costs jobs and damages competitiveness in our economy. The blowback from North Carolina's discriminatory law this year is predicted to cost that state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue and hundreds of new jobs. Much of corporate America understands that openness is an economic virtue as well as an ethical one. It helps American companies attract top talent. By requiring that our tax dollars be used fairly we strengthen our economy, but some members of Congress just don't get it.

Rep. Maloney's amendment initially received enough votes to pass. Then the vote totals began to change. Supporters were perplexed. Several Republicans had switched their votes using a secret backdoor process, hoping that voters would not find out that they had voted in favor of hate. Let us be clear on this point: they voted publicly for equality and then switched their votes in secret to oppose it.

The provision was defeated by a single vote. Said Rep. Maloney, "They literally snatched discrimination from the jaws of equality." At first, no one knew who had done the snatching.

But here is where the story gets interesting. The names of the vote-switchers leaked. We learned that one of them was Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin, the representative for Maine's 2nd District.

Congressman Poliquin had voted to support a nearly-identical amendment last year, but last week, under pressure from Republican leadership, he reversed his position. It is perhaps not coincidental that just hours before, Speaker Paul Ryan had hosted a big fundraiser for Poliquin.

Congressman Poliquin then insisted that he "abhors discrimination," a claim laughable on its face, since he voted for exactly that. More interestingly, he also said this:

"I am outraged that political opponents or members of the press would claim or insinuate that I cast a vote due to pressure or party politics," claiming that "I voted exactly the way I wanted to vote."

It is fascinating that the congressman would choose to claim prejudice as a motivating factor rather than admit to party loyalty.

But then, after days of terrible press in local and national outlets, and with an equality rally planned outside of his office, and less than a week since the original switch, Poliquin reversed his vote again and voted in favor of the same amendment from the week before.

Congressman Poliquin's unending reversals exemplify why many Americans hold Congress in such low regard: he values political calculation over personal conviction. Any claim by Congressman Poliquin to true belief on this issue falls flat when you learn that he voted the opposite way the year before, switched his vote, and then switched his vote back to the original position.

We need representatives who can be trusted and counted on to do what's right - especially when it comes to the fundamental right of nondiscrimination - even when under pressure from his or her party. It certainly won't be the last time that Congressman Poliquin and the other Republicans who changed their votes face such pressure.

Congress has become famous for its gridlock, its stubbornness, and its apathy. But when a policy that could have protected real people fails by just a single vote, there are two inescapable conclusions: it could have been different, and it could happen again.

Last week, a single individual made a choice, and that choice threatened the strength of our economy and our basic decency as a country. His single vote made the difference. This November, our votes can make the difference - because some elections, like Congressman Poliquin's, are still close.

Every one of us has the ability to impact our future. So do it. Reach out to the campaigns of candidates you support. Work with your friends and neighbors. Donate. Volunteer. Band together. Because we can build a country where "equality for all" is not a slogan, is not subject to flip-flops or reversals when the pressure is high, but is a sacred promise for every American.

Or we can lose by one vote.

EMILY CAIN is a former member of the Maine legislature and a candidate for Congress in Maine's 2nd District.

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