Monday, October 22, 2012

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: Congress Behind the People on Marriage Equality

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Oct. 21, 2012

One political truism that’s been repeated countless times in recent years is that same-sex marriage and other gay-rights issues are gaining momentum with the American people. And indeed, poll after poll shows a growing acceptance of gay marriage, even among some of the politically conservative.

However, one place where it apparently isn’t true is in the hallowed halls of Congress.

“While the American people move forward on issues of equality, the majority of Congress — particularly the House — continues to be out of touch,” said a blog post of the Human Rights Campaign — a major national gay-rights organization.

The group released its annual congressional scorecard Thursday. “The average score of House members was 40 percent and 35 [percent] for Senators, down significantly from the 111th Congress,” the campaign’s blog said.

The group scored congressional votes on legislation as well as who signed on as co-sponsors to certain legislation. Senators also were scored on their votes for and against a couple of openly gay federal judges.

U.S. Rep Martin Heinrich, D-Albuquerque, who is running for U.S. Senate, was one of 115 House members who received a perfect score of 100 percent. He was the only member of New Mexico’s delegation to do so.

Heinrich got news of his 100 percent the day after a televised debate with his Republican opponent, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson, in which he spoke of his support for marriage equality and boasted of his vote against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, an action that allowed gay people to serve openly in the military. (Wilson, in the debate, reiterated her opposition to gay marriage. She also had been against repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”)

Not among the legislation considered in the Human Rights Campaign scorecard was Sen. Al Franken’s bill that would prohibit bullying in public schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In Wednesday’s debate, Heinrich noted that he is a co-sponsor of the bill. Wilson is opposed.

Wilson said her main concern was that it would cut funds for schools where bullying exists. “We don’t want to have to turn to Washington to solve those problems,” she said at the debate.

As for the other New Mexicans on Capitol Hill, Ben Ray Luján of Santa Fe got a 90 percent rating; retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman scored 88 percent; Sen. Tom Udall got an 82 percent and Rep. Steve Pearce of Hobbs — the lone Republican in the delegation — got an even zero.

Why was Udall, who usually is considered more liberal than Bingaman, rated lower by the Human Rights Campaign?

The only difference in the senators’ scorecards was that Bingaman, according to the organization, is a co-sponsor of a proposed act that would equalize the tax treatment of employer-provided health coverage for domestic partners and other non-spouse, non-dependent beneficiaries. The current version of the bill, which has been kicking around for nearly a decade in various forms, hasn’t made it out of the Senate Finance Committee.

For the first time, the Human Rights Campaign’s scorecard this year noted whether members of Congress have taken an affirmative position in favor of allowing same-sex marriage. In the New Mexico delegation, Heinrich, Luján and Udall have taken that position.

On their blog, the campaign has a graphic saying that 54 percent of Americans support marriage equality, while only 33 of Congress does. Another says that 79 percent of Americans support workplace protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people, while only 40 percent of Congress does.

I’m not sure about the workplace protection polls, but the campaign is correct that two national polls this year — CNN and NBC/Wall Street Journal — each said that 54 percentage support for same-sex marriage. Other polls have been slightly lower. Whatever the exact number, it’s pretty clear the public is ahead of the leaders in these issues.