About a week ago, 145 House Democrats signed an amicus brief in a lawsuit that seeks the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. An amicus brief, for those who aren’t in the legal profession or fans of Law & Order, is a legal paper written in favor of one side of a lawsuit but not written by a person/entity who is a party to the lawsuit. It’s basically the legal equivalent of listening to both sides of an argument, then pointing your finger at one of the people making the argument and yelling, “Yeah! What he said!”
The Defense of Marriage Act, for those who are not gay or fans of the history of inequality in the United States, is a 1996 federal law that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. It’s why no matter how many states legalize gay marriage, the federal government still doesn’t recognize it. But since I knew something about DOMA to begin with, especially the fact that it was signed with overwhelming support from both parties in 1996 (Final roll call vote in the House: 342-67 in favor, with Democrats voting in favor 188-65 with 15 not voting), my first thought was: “I wonder where these 145 people were in 1996?”
So, the first thing I did was find out. I looked up when these 145 Democrats entered the House, and narrowed my search down to those who had been elected prior to 1996. Next, I compared that list with the “yea” votes in the roll call for the Defense of Marriage Act. What I came up with was a list of 16 House Democrats who both voted for DOMA in 1996 and were now adding their names to an amicus brief calling for the repeal of DOMA. The names included both House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn. In sum, the 16 were as follows:
Eddie Bernice Johnson
I looked over all the names and tried to categorize them, to see if there were any noticeable similarities, but there really aren’t. Some are liberal, some are moderate. Some are from the South, some the Midwest, some New England — everywhere, really. Some are black, and some are white. (Although it’s taken for granted that black liberals were slower to come around to gay marriage than white liberals, that isn’t the case in the DOMA vote. While Brown, Clyburn, Johnson, and Rush are all black, many black Democrats voted against DOMA, including such luminaries as John Conyers, John Lewis, and Charlie Rangel.)
Satisfied that there wasn’t really any through-thread on the issue, I decided to contact each and every one of these congressmen’s and congresswomen’s offices, sending them the following email:
Dear [Press Secretary or Communications Director]:
My name is Dan Sweeney and I’m the political editor of the South Florida-based news and entertainment website Saltyeggs.com. I’m writing a story on the recently filed Defense of Marriage Act amicus brief that was signed by 145 House Democrats, including Rep. XXX, that supported the repeal of DOMA. I narrowed the list of signees on the brief down to the ones who were in Congress when DOMA was passed in 1996. Then, I looked at the roll call vote to see which Democrats had voted for the act. I came up with a list of 16 Democrats who voted for DOMA in 1996 but are now supporting the repeal of the act. Rep. XXX was among those 16.
I’m hoping to get a statement from Rep. XXX answering the following questions:
When did you change your position on DOMA?
Why did you change your position? Was there any one instance that really made you rethink it, or was it a gradual process?
I need to file the story by Thursday night, which means I would need such a statement by Thursday afternoon. Please let me know if you need any further information on my end. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
My purpose in this was not to try and catch the representatives in some “flip-flop.” There is no scandal in switching positions over the course of 16 years. People are allowed to change their minds, and indeed, someone who changes in the face of new information makes a better leader than someone who remains completely and totally fixated on the correctness of his/her ideas, regardless of new evidence. (see: Bush, George W.) The only time a change in positions becomes odious is when a politician changes his/her position at will depending on who makes up the audience and how the position will be received. (See: Romney, Willard M.) Instead, I hoped to show that the story of these 16 men and women is the story of America on this issue of gay marriage; I would show that as America’s opinion on this issue changed, reflected in improving poll numbers, so too did the positions of these elected representatives.
I didn’t have long to wait for my first reply. Rep. Hoyer’s office contacted me and supplied a press release outlining Hoyer’s position on gay marriage as of this past spring. As you can see if you click on that link, the press release didn’t exactly answer any of my questions. So I wrote his office back and asked them to get more specific, reiterating my questions. I never heard back.
I also never heard back from the offices of 14 of the others. Nothing but silence. The one other exception was the office of Bobby Rush of Chicago. At first, I got a message that read as follows:
The amicus briefs make clear that the House is not united on this issue, that the lawyers hired by BLAG do not speak for the entire institution, and that there is no legitimate federal interest in denying married same-sex couples the legal security, rights and responsibilities that federal law provides to couples who are married under state law. The exclusion of any married couple from critical programs like Social Security that help ensure the wellbeing of our citizens defies logic; the fact that Section 3 carves out an entire class of married citizens based on sexual orientation and sex also violates constitutional equal protection guarantees.
On May 31, 2012, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed, ruling in Gill v. OPM that DOMA is unconstitutional and that the denial of federal responsibilities and rights to married gay and lesbian couples does not adequately serve any permissible federal interest. The Ninth Circuit has not yet ruled in Golinski v. OPM.
I hope this helps to clarify.
Of course, this did nothing to clarify. I wasn’t looking for legalese. I wanted a real reaction from a real human being. I wanted someone, anyone, to show that they understood the injustice of this law on a basic, visceral level. Once again, I responded to the message asking for clarification. Not long afterward, I got this back:
“I now know better thanks to the advocacy of Gay Rights advocates who stood strong and spoke courageously to a nation demanding that we live up to our founding ethic of equality. Once I understood the level of discrimination that gay and lesbian Americans and their children suffered I changed. I cannot abide anyone being treated differently because of who they are. I don’t think there was any one incident but rather a process of education and enlightenment that evolved over time that enhanced my understanding. I can only hope that the courts will continue to uphold the civil and human rights of all of our citizens equally.”
Of all 16 of those congressmen and women, I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was Rush, and only Rush, who gave me a real, human response. Rush’s entire political life has been a slow evolution, from a Black Panther to one of the most anti-gun voices in Congress, from anger to peace, from a revolutionary voice in the wilderness to a congressman whose political life has been a constant call for understanding and fellowship between peoples of all races, religions, and other lines that have too-often divided us in the past.
As for the other 15, were they just too busy to get back to some random journalist from South Florida? Maybe so, ace, maybe so. But even the office of the one Florida politician in the bunch, Corrine Brown, couldn’t be bothered to email back. I can’t help but wonder: Did these 15 have a similar evolution to Rep. Rush, or are they just opportunistic jackals leaping from one position to the next after testing the electoral winds? I’d like to believe the former, but I’ve known too many politicians not to believe that the latter describes at least a few.