Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

October 30,  2006  



Heterosexuals cut out of federal benefits bill

By Thomas F. Coleman

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) introduced a bill into the United States Senate last month to require the federal government to extend health, dental, vision, and retirement benefits to domestic partners of federal employees.  Senate Bill 3955 is known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act.

The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Senators Gordon Smith and Lincoln Chafee and several notable Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Ted Kennedy.

The Senate proposal is virtually a mirror image of House Bill 3267 which was introduced last year by Representative Barney Frank (D-MA).  The primary difference between the two bills is that the Frank measure would have included opposite-sex couples as well as same-sex couples in its definition of "domestic partners," while the Lieberman bill is limited to gay couples.

Lieberman co-sponsored a similar bill (S. 1252) in 2003, with the exception that it included all domestic partners regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.  This bill was patterned after a 1999 Barney Frank measure (H.R. 2859) which, by its express terms, included same and opposite-sex partners.

When I first reviewed the Barney Frank bill in 1999, I became very suspicious that the author's intentions were to make it easy to dump unmarried heterosexual partners from future federal benefits reform proposals if that became necessary to gain co-sponsors in the House or to stimulate similar legislation in the Senate.

In his 1999 benefits bill, and in all subsequent versions of it, Frank included a clause which defined "domestic partners" in paragraph "A" as same-sex domestic partners and in paragraph "B" as opposite-sex domestic partners.  As long as both paragraphs were included, the result was an inclusive bill for all domestic partners, regardless of gender.

At first glance, I thought it was odd to have to two clauses like these, when it would have been much easier to exclude all reference to the sex of the partners and just refer to two unmarried adults.  But then my cynicism clicked in and I began to smell a rat.

Did Barney Frank, the champion of gay rights in Congress, really want to see inclusive domestic partner benefits for the domestic partners of all federal workers?  Or was his primary, if not sole, concern to get benefits for the partners of gay and lesbian federal workers?  My intuition told me that Frank was holding his nose, so to speak, when he crafted his first domestic partner benefits bill to make it appear to include same and opposite-sex partners.

When the first two Senate versions of the benefits bill were introduced, and both included a clause "A" for same-sex partners and a clause "B" for opposite-sex partners, my suspicions intensified.  I wondered how long it would take for clause "B" to disappear.

I now have the answer.  Not very long.

It is interesting to see would-be presidential hopefuls, such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, co-sponsoring the bill which dropped unmarried heterosexual partners from federal benefits reform.  Could it be that they want their cake and eat it too by projecting an image of being a conservative liberal?

My intuition says the Democratic National Committee (DNC)is advising high-profile Democratic candidates to support domestic partnership benefits measures limited to same-sex couples.  The theory would be that offering benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples might be characterized by their Republican opponents as undermining marriage.  Since same-sex couples can't legally marry under federal law, giving them equal benefits theoretically won't undermine marriage.

The DNC itself made a policy decision years ago to give benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees.  It rejected suggestions from at least one major benefactor to expand the benefits to the partners of its unmarried heterosexual employees.

Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont and current head of the DNC, is no stranger to this issue.  As Governor, he signed legislation limiting "civil union" benefits to same-sex partners, which had the result of forcing heterosexuals in Vermont to marry in order to gain comparable benefits. 

All of this may be academic for the next two years, however, since it is unlikely that President George Bush would sign a domestic partner benefits bill for federal employees during the remainder of his term in office. 

The only real progress which may occur prior to the 2008 federal elections may be committee hearings in the Senate and the House focusing on benefits for federal employees.  During such hearings I suspect that the public will learn that the real concern of the proponents of these bills is to gain equal benefits for Gay America, not Unmarried America.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.