That "whooshing" sound you just heard? That was President Obama making another partial end-run around Congress, also known as "the place where legislation goes to die."
Word filtered out of the White House on Monday morning that Obama planned to sign an executive order banning anti-gay discrimination among companies that do business with the federal government, enacting for those employees protections included in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. That law, which would bar employers (with some notable exemptions) from firing or censuring a worker based on sexual orientation, passed the Democratic Senate but stalled in the Republican House.
Obama has taken similar actions on other issues that have failed to get enough support among legislators to pass, such as the $10.10 an hour minimum wage, which would be required for federal contractors but not for the rest of the nation's workforce. Obama signed that order after Senate Republicans blocked a bill to apply the minimum nationwide.
Obama promised to push ENDA — first introduced in 1994 — during his 2008 campaign, but he has balked at moving forward without legislative support. Given the unlikelihood that Congress will pass the measure, he apparently has opted to at least establish the protections for employees of federal contractors. And the current version of ENDA has come under fire itself by some former supporters after it was altered to allow religious exemptions. That is an odd carve-out, saying in essence that if a religion dictates a specific discrimination, then it should be exempt from civil laws.
Still, the current iteration of ENDA protections would be better than none. Fewer than half of the states have laws barring discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people; ENDA would make it federal law. But it's hard to see a path for that to happen with the current, and likely future, makeup of Congress. So it's good that Obama is taking this step, even if it only addresses a fraction of the problem.
"Most Americans don't know that it's still legal in many states to fire someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), ENDA's main sponsor in the Senate. "That's because it not only defies common sense, it goes wholly against who we are as a nation. No more excuses. It's way past time for Speaker [John A.] Boehner to allow ENDA to have a vote in the House. No one should be fired because of who they are or whom they love."