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By Diane Silver
Get ready to laugh. I’m going to lead you through the twists and turns of one of the most ridiculous places known to humankind: the U.S. Congress. The purpose of this exercise is to explain what has happened to the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
But I have a deeper goal. The hate crimes bill is the first in a series of pro-LGBT proposals expected to come before Congress. These include the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, changes in immigration laws and repeals of the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on lesbians and gays in the military.
Given that President Obama has said he favors these proposals, the trick for LGBT America is to get them through Congress and onto his desk. This is no easy task. To succeed, our community and allies must understand how Congress really works. We need to know when to relax and let the process rumble forward, when to flood Congress with phone calls and letters and, yes, even when to panic.
The civics class explanation of Congressional procedure is simple. First, a bill is considered by a committee, and then it comes up for a vote by either the House or Senate. The bill next heads to the other side of the Capitol where it goes before yet another committee and passes a vote by the other chamber.
Any differences between House and Senate versions are worked out in a conference committee. The revised bill goes back to the House and Senate for final votes. If that version passes both chambers, it goes to the President for either a veto or a signature.
Oh, that Congressional action really were that easy.
The civics class outline is accurate, but it leaves out the differences between the House and Senate. Civics classes also ignore the cajoling, hand holding, threats and deals necessary to herd 219 contrary cats in the House and 60 grumpily independent cats in the Senate in the same direction.
The twisted path of Matthew Shepherd Act shows the real process. In the House, the proposal came up for a vote as a stand alone bill and won approval without being larded with amendments. That’s because House rules give pro-LGBT Speaker Nancy Pelosi tight control over the chamber and the ability to block unsavory amendments.
The Senate, though, is the home of 100 powerful individuals. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can’t make any other senator do a darn thing.
Senators can offer amendments during floor debate. Senators can also filibuster, which freezes debate and takes 60 votes to break. Despite the Constitution’s insistence that only 51 votes are required to pass a bill in the Senate, these days it only takes the threat of a filibuster to kill a proposal. One can safely assume that threats will be made against any pro-LGBT legislation.
Because of the Senate’s gnarly nature, controversial measures seldom arrive for floor debate as stand alone bills. Thus, hate crimes became part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Senators also like to insert “poison pill” amendments. These cute little things are so noxious that they make lawmakers vote against bills they actually like. In July anti-gay Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama inserted several poison pills into hate crimes.
All of this is why the fate of hate crimes protection has been tied, at various times, to the future of the F-22 fighter, a concealed carry gun proposal and the death penalty.
The good news is that versions of hate crime protection have passed both the House and Senate. Human Rights Campaign Senior Policy Advocate David Stacy predicts the Matthew Shepherd Act should be ready for the President’s signature by the end of September.
I love Stacy’s optimism, but I’m a tad more jaded. As Stacy notes at HRC Back Story, much remains to be done. The defense bill is now the vehicle for passing hate crimes protection. Congressional staff will meet during the August recess to work out differences. Key decisions will be made by the House and Senate when they return to work in September.
Watch the progress of the defense bill. Pay attention to action alerts from the Human Rights Campaign and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Visit with your representative and senators when they’re back at home in August. Also, cross your fingers or say a prayer if you’re so inclined.
One more thing: The Matthew Shepherd Act is supposed to be the easy part of the pro-equality agenda. I can’t wait to see what happens to the rest of our legislation.