Obama Extends Benefits to Unmarried Partners

Federal workers will now get benefits for their “partner” whether they are married or not, Scott Butterworth reports for WaPo’s 44 blog.

President Obama will announce tomorrow that he is extending federal benefits to include unmarried domestic partners of federal workers, including same-sex partners, White House officials said tonight.

Obama will sign an executive order implementing the change in the Oval Office, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging the president’s announcement.

The move would give partners of federal employees access to health care and financial benefits such as relocation fees for moves. The State Department announced a similar extension of benefits last month, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling it “the right thing to do.”

The action will come as welcome news to gay-rights activists, who have voiced loud disappointment with Obama’s handling of several issues important to their community.

It’s not clear to me how he has the authority to make such a sweeping change without Congress passing a law.

Nor is it clear how one determines who is a “partner” without a marriage certificate.  Presumably, one simply declares that Person X is one’s “partner” (or, in Texas, “pardner”) and they it?  So, presumably, one could simply designate friends who are down on their luck and need health insurance as one’s “partner” on a rotating basis, “breaking up” with one’s that get insurance on their own and finding another?   Certainly, that would give whole new meaning to the phrase “friends with benefits.”

(I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek here.  Several municipalities implemented similar policies years ago, so I’m sure there are provisions in place to limit abuse.  But it’s got to be easier to change “partners” than spouses or whatever name one gives to those united in a civil union.)

It should be noted that Jeff Zeleny‘s NYT report suggests a plan less comprehensive than Butterworth reports.

Mr. Obama will be weighing in for the first time on one of the most delicate social and political issues of the day: whether the government must provide benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. While he will announce a list of benefits, officials said, they are not expected to include broad health insurance coverage, which could require legislation to achieve.

At any rate, this should at least assuage the gay community, which is peeved at Obama for defending current law like DOMA and DADT while not pressing to overturn them anytime soon?

Not so much.  John Aravosis reports on an embarrassing collapse of a gay fundraiser and Pam Spaulding is ripping Obama a new one for the lameness of this benefits plan and for having no master strategy to implement a gay rights agenda.

UPDATE:  Now that the announcement is made rather than speculative, it’s apparently not making anyone happy.

The package of domestic partnership benefits that President Obama established for federal workers on Wednesday drew the loudest protests from some of those it was intended to help, gay men and lesbians who criticized the move as too timid.

The administrative memorandum extending some partnership rights to federal workers in same-sex relationships, which Mr. Obama signed late Wednesday, allows administration personnel to take leave to care for sick partners and requires the government to recognize their partners as household members when determining overseas housing allocations for State Department employees, among other things.

But several of the nation’s most prominent gay and lesbian political leaders quickly attacked the president for failing to extend full health care benefits to the same-sex partners of federal workers, questioning the administration’s explanation that it is precluded from doing so by the Defense of Marriage Act, which Mr. Obama had vowed to repeal during his presidential campaign.

Their outcry put the administration on the defensive for an action it had hoped would help address increasing complaints from gay activists who supported Mr. Obama’s election but now say he is ignoring the issues he promised to address, like a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay men and lesbians in the military. And it has tested the balance the administration has tried to strike between avoiding hot-button cultural issues that could distract it from pushing its ambitious economic agenda and avoiding angering key liberal constituencies that expect Mr. Obama to make good on campaign promises.

[…]

Speaking from the Oval Office on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said the memorandum — which represents his interpretation of existing law — represented just a start. “This is only one step,” Mr. Obama said. “Unfortunately, my administration is not authorized by existing federal law to provide same-sex couples with the full range of benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.”  Mr. Obama said he would indeed work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, calling it “discriminatory.” He also announced his support for legislation that would extend full health care benefits to federal workers, a measure whose sponsors include Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and Representative Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, both of whom stood behind the president Wednesday afternoon.

[…]

But late Wednesday, Elaine Kaplan, general counsel for the office of personnel management, said federal statutes dictated that many vital health care benefits be conferred only to “spouses” and children of federal employees, effectively making it a benefit of marriage as defined by the marriage act. Ms. Kaplan said the new legislation the president is supporting would remedy that prohibition. In the meantime, she said, his memorandum would cover those benefits that do not fall under the more restrictive statutory language.

I’m pleased that the president has followed the law here.  I am somewhat confused, however:  Surely, benefits conferred to same-sex partners are also available for opposite-sex partners?  Otherwise, it would surely be discriminatory.

Photo by Flickr user dawnzy58 under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DL says:

    Authority? You’re kidding of course? This man has taken over much of the nation in total defiance of constitutional power while half the people we send to lead and protect us, applaud, and the other half sit in fear, quivering for concern about the loss of their jobs, as the nation rejects the millenia-formed sound principles of freedom documented into a constitution by our founding fathers, in favor of a smooth talking messiah of the left.

    This is like watching horrible slow motion wreck or more accurately self-inflicted euthanasia.

  2. sam says:

    It’s not clear to me how he has the authority to make such a sweeping change without Congress passing a law.

    Shouldn’t he, as head of the Executive, have plenary power in the allocation of benefits in his department? Note I said “allocation.” If Congress were to pass on who gets the benefits, this could provoke a separation-of-powers fight, I’d think.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Shouldn’t he, as head of the Executive, have plenary power in the allocation of benefits in his department?

    Hell no. For one thing, this would have to be massively expensive, unless he’s going to take away benefits from married couples to pay for it. For another, Congress presumably passed specific benefits for married folks as a matter of public policy. Extending same to non-married folks undermines that policy.

  4. DL says:

    Could it be that Obama is smart enough to know that giving too much effort toward gay “rights” (I thought rights came from nature’s God?) might, just might, lose votes from the bloack community?

  5. Brian J. says:

    Congress? Isn’t that just a reality show on CSPAN?

  6. sam says:

    Hell no. For one thing, this would have to be massively expensive…

    I was referring to his constitutional power. The expense is not on point. Does he have the constituional power or not?

  7. James Joyner says:

    The expense is not on point. Does he have the constituional power or not?

    The expense is certainly relevant, in that he can’t just willy nilly spend gobs of money on his own whim.

    But there’s nothing obvious in Article I granting him the authority to make public policy on these matters. He could, for example, override previous policies of, say, inviting only married couples to the staff Christmas party. Or declare that agencies that conferred benefits to non-married partners had to do so for same-sex couples. But I don’t see how he has the authority to do this.

  8. Furhead says:

    This man has taken over much of the nation in total defiance of constitutional power …

    So you’re saying he’s just like the last few Presidents?

  9. JKB says:

    The President can only spend money appropriated by Congress and is limited by restrictions and conditions placed on the appropriation. In reality, many of the authorization restrictions are weak and generally only mean a contentious questioning by the committees next year. However, Obama will have to reallocate benefits from the married couples to the newly recognized partnerships or seek an increase in the employee benefit/compensation spending appropriations.

    The question of how you separate a “partnership” from two people living together seems to be to be the big irritant. Sure they’ll set up rules but at some point a live-in ‘friend’ is going to sue for the benefits of a government employee just like spouses and former spouses. Evangelicals may find this beneficial since it could make “living in sin” financially risky.

  10. An Interested Party says:

    I’m just curious…what is the point of the picture used with this post…

  11. Furhead says:

    I would assume it’s because Walt and Mickey are partners, in the “friends” sense. So they would qualify for benefits (if Walt was still alive and worked for the feds).

  12. Arcs says:

    First, you say:

    It’s not clear to me how he has the authority to make such a sweeping change without Congress passing a law.

    Then you say:

    For one thing, this would have to be massively expensive, unless he’s going to take away benefits from married couples to pay for it.

    Finally:

    The expense is certainly relevant, in that he can’t just willy nilly spend gobs of money on his own whim.

    When do you suppose the Congress will advise him of the limits of his authority or let him know he needs to stop spending “gobs of money on his own whim”?

  13. Eric Florack says:

    I would assume it’s because Walt and Mickey are partners, in the “friends” sense. So they would qualify for benefits (if Walt was still alive and worked for the feds).

    You know, I’ve always been suspicious about those two….

  14. James Joyner says:

    I’m just curious…what is the point of the picture used with this post…

    The statue is called “Partners” and was the most prolific thing that came up on a Flickr search for the term. Also, given Disney’s out front position on gay rights, I thought the double meaning especially amusing.

  15. Mark says:

    Nor is it clear how one determines who is a “partner” without a marriage certificate.

    I don’t have the actual data, but considering my own experience, I would guess that a majority of Fortune 500 companies extend benefits to “partners”, same-sex or not. There are various housing requirements (more than one year under the same roof, etc.) and affidavets to sign, but it’s not like this is a new idea or one not often applied. My fiance was on my health insurance nearly a year before we were married.

  16. Has this moved President Obama back into Andrew Sullivan’s good graces?

  17. PD Shaw says:

    Mark, that seems to suggest that some sort of bureacracy needs to be created to document and authenticate the bona fides of unmarried partners. The thing about a marriage certificate or civil unions is that they are largely self-authenticating.

  18. Furhead says:

    You know, I’ve always been suspicious about those two….

    Yeah, seriously! Mickey’s high-pitched voice, for example. Plus, I mean this pretty much proves the point that gay marriage would lead to people marrying their dogs, or mice as the case may be.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    Plus, I mean this pretty much proves the point that gay marriage would lead to people marrying their dogs, or mice as the case may be.

    Well hell, I guess Antonin Scalia had to be right about something

  20. Hangtown Bob says:

    So… I presume that I can now have my female “domestic partner” to whom I am unmarried be covered in the same manner that my wife (Female) would be covered. This benefit cannot be made exclusively to homosexuals (that would be discrimatory). It sounds like one will be able to have anyone to whom he is “attached” covered by this new benefit.

  21. JKB says:

    I thought the photo was an illustration of the oft predicted slippery slope, same sex partners today, mice and men tomorrow? It is the best laid plans.

    Apparently, health benefits require a change in the law since the law specifically uses “spouse” but some other benefits are administratively controlled. In the long run, this will increase the personnel costs to agencies since extending benefits to previously non-covered persons will obviously have some expense. Whether the funds will come from new appropriations or from funds diverted from programs is the real question.

  22. An Interested Party says:

    I thought the photo was an illustration of the oft predicted slippery slope, same sex partners today, mice and men tomorrow?

    And who really believes in such nonsense? That legalizing gay marriage will eventually lead to legalizing bestiality? Please, that’s pathetic…