Federal Domestic Partner Benefits Weighed

Thursday - 9/25/2008, 8:40am EDT

By Max Cacas
FederalNewsRadio

Though the measure may not be approved in this Congress, Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) still believes that the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (S. 2521) is "the fair and right thing to do."

In a hearing held on Capitol Hill yesterday, Lieberman's Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs considered legislation that would provide employee benefit programs to the same-sex partners of federal employees. This would include health benefits, long-term care, Family and Medical Leave, retirement benefits, and other benefits now available to married employees and their spouses.

Lieberman says that he, and co-author Sen. Gordon Smith (R.-Or) believe that this is a case where the federal government has a lot to learn from the private sector, where more than half of the Fortune 500 companies now offer benefits to domestic partners.

The governments of 13 states, including my home state of Connecticut, 145 local jurisdictions, and some 300 colleges and universities have joined the trend. They aren't doing this just because it's the right thing to do. They do it because it's good management policy.

The only witness testifying against S 2125, Howard Weizmann, Deputy Director with the Office of Personnel Management, said domestic partners of opposite sex couples are not eligible for Federal programs under Title 5 of the U.S. Code, and therefore same sex couples are not eligible under that regulation as well.

In addition, he says OPM opposes the Lieberman-Smith Bill because the measure would require only that same sex couples provide only a sworn affidavit that they are in a committed relationship to be eligible for benefits. Along with the potential for "fraud and abuse", Weizmann says such a system would make it difficult to resolve administrative problems when such a relationship breaks down, much as married couples when they divorce.

Witnesses from IBM (one of the top Fortune 500 companies offering domestic benefits to same-sex couples), the National Treasury Employees Union, and the American Federation of Government Employees, all testified that by expanding the eligibility for federal worker benefits, the government has a better chance to compete with private industry for the next generation of federal workers.

Chairman Lieberman cited the experience of Michael Guest, former U.S. Ambassador to Romania and Dean of the Foreign Service Instutute, who resigned from the Foreign Service in 2007 when he was unable to obtain benefits for his partner.

Ambassador Guest was the first publicly gay man to be confirmed for an ambassadorship. When he resigned in 2007, he said, "I have felt compelled to choose between obligations to my partner - who is my family - and service to my country. That anyone should have to make that choice is a stain on the Secretary's leadership and a shame for this institution and our country."

Those are moving words from a loyal and talented public servant - who described the Foreign Service as the career he was "born for - what I was meant to do." And it is a great loss that he felt compelled to leave foreign service at a time when the nation needs talented diplomats more than ever to help meet the challenges we face - in part, because his federal employee benefits would not adequately allow him to care for the needs of his family.

Lieberman acknowledges that with time running short in this Congress, it is unlikely that his bill will be taken up before the end of the year. He told FederalNewsRadio that he intends to re-introduce the measure in the next Congress, and hold additional hearings early in 2009.

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On the Web:
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee - Hearing on Domestic Partner Benefits (9/24/08)

OPM - OPM Official Testifies on Domestic Partner Benefits (News Release)

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