I want to preface this by saying I could be full of shit. I know a fair amount about how Congress works both in theory and in practice, but what follows is just educated speculation.
A gay activist group is holding a protest tonight in Speaker Pelosi’s district, claiming she’s not being aggressive enough in putting the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) on the House’s legislative calendar. Congress has a few short weeks left in session, and if political prognosticators are correct, Democrats may lose control of one or both chambers.
So it’s urgent that ENDA should be called to a vote in the House, right? Wrong. In reality, Congress doesn’t work the way we were taught in Civics. It’s much more delicate, and much more the product of the whims of individual members and the challenges they each face. The House and Senate can pass either DADT or ENDA, but it’s nearly impossible to pass both, so it’s time for gay rights activists to pick their pleasure.
The House repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) in late May, sending it to the Senate for consideration. Majority Leader Reid has not placed the bill on the Senate calendar, but many insiders expect him to do so before the Senate recesses. If he does, let’s assume that he’s gone to Herculean efforts to get the votes, and that DADT repeal will likely pass, be sent to the President’s desk, and be signed into law.
Because of Reid’s work, the House needs to sit tight. Passing ENDA would feel good right now, but would probably scuttle DADT repeal. Let’s play out the scenario.
The House passes ENDA, sending it to the Senate for consideration. Now Senator Reid has two bills about gay rights – a politically tough bill that may hold a once-in-a-decade opportunity, or an easier bill that can possibly be passed within the next 2-3 years. (Debatable, but that’s my read on it)
Many Senators with tough re-elections coming up suddenly have the power to show they are strong on gay rights while causing less turmoil in their conservative and military constituencies. Senator Reid is now faced with a huge problem, because those Senators are backing away from their DADT votes and asking for ENDA to be put on the calendar instead.
Given the option, and in a tough re-election year, Reid would very possibly have to drop DADT repeal from the calendar and take up ENDA instead. Members would have been able to force DADT off the calendar because they were given a politically easier bill to vote for. And maybe ENDA doesn’t even pass because the ensuing political fight weakens an already very fragile coalition in the Senate.
Whether Democrats win or lose the chambers of Congress, it would be a massive blow to DADT repeal and to gay rights in general. Looking at it from the tactical perspective, Speaker Pelosi is smart to delay ENDA for the moment. Give Senator Reid the space he needs to pass DADT repeal.
As for gay activists (who I respect greatly for their contributions to my life and the lives of others), protest if you must, but realize that no one’s ignoring you. Quite the opposite – they’re strategizing on our behalf.