Last week, the House Education and Labor Committee held a full hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, (ENDA) which would ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. ENDA is the crown jewel of an incremental strategy that has dominated the GLBT movement in Washington. The idea is to cut up gay rights into a series of small legislative bites that are digestible to moderate Democrats and Republicans (at least the few left) in swing districts.
For example, we have a bill that would eliminate the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). We have another that would allow gay people to serve openly in the military. There is legislation that adds sexual orientation to existing hate crime law. The list goes on.
This strategy may yet work and it deserves a chance, if only because our advocacy groups in Washington have invested so much in its success. It would be very difficult, in any case, to turn this ship around. Perhaps, the ENDA snowball will roll downhill and slowly turn into an avalanche of individual bills that become law. Maybe the piecemeal pupu platter really will become a full meal.
But, what if we don’t see tangible results in the next couple of years? Will we be flexible enough to pivot and go in a different direction?
I know it is counterintuitive, but I believe that a single comprehensive GLBT rights bill, that incorporates most of the bills floating around Congress, will be easier to pass than the current flurry of legislation. The reason is, having numerous bills requires repeated partisan fights — each one bloodier than the next. One large bill would require only a single fight — which would greatly benefit Democrats in conservative districts.
The current way of doing business is the equivalent of me coming home on Monday to argue with my partner about not putting the cap on the toothpaste. Then on Tuesday, I pick a fight with him for not making the bed. On Wednesday, I confront him because he did not clean up the kitchen after he ate breakfast. Instead of bitter battles over small-bore issues, would it not be simpler for us to have one gigantic, nasty spat over the larger issue of house cleaning and get it over with?
The strength of a single GLBT bill is that once it is passed, conservative Republicans have one election cycle to try to use it as a club. Once this time-period elapses, the issue is virtually off the table at the federal level. When Americans see that their lives were not negatively impacted, it will be difficult for conservatives to revive the issue with popular support.
The incremental strategy, on the other hand, gives the GOP — and a few conservative Democrats — a permanent wedge issue to use each election cycle. Ending the gay rights debate with sweeping legislation will be less painful at the polls than having this controversial topic drag on indefinitely.
Of course, this won’t end the debate on marriage — but once the DOMA is eliminated, most of these skirmishes will occur at the state level, or ultimately be decided in the Supreme Court.
There is also a public relations advantage to having one large GLBT rights bill, in that it will overwhelm our opponents. If we fight ten bills separately, they can send out ten press releases blasting and distorting each bill. By lumping everything together, we limit the total number of attacks (there are only so many press releases they can send out for one fight).
With one bill, our side is strengthened because our messages are streamlined to three compelling points:
1) In America, all people are created equal and this includes GLBT citizens
2) Our system should not have different sets of laws governing different people
3) Discrimination is wrong
Democrats in conservative districts should be able to confidently argue these three points with moral authority, while the incremental strategy forces Members to abandon powerful, overarching themes and delve into the weeds concerning each piece of legislation, thus weakening their positions.
Most importantly, one bill allows our allies to make coherent arguments for equality. Right now, they are forced to contend that it is wrong to fire gay people from jobs, but it is not as wrong for gay people to be denied public accommodations. This inconsistency creates a patchwork of logic and laws and weakens the moral fabric of our movement.
A one-shot approach might also help our advocacy groups conserve resources. Currently, our lobbyists have to make a pitch for each bill and our advertising dollars are spread thin. With one bill, we could save enough money to create a powerful campaign and rally the grass roots.
Finally, by standing up for full-equality, the Democrats will gain a very loyal and satisfied constituency for years to come. Judging by the attacks on Obama over healthcare, loyal friends may come in handy.