On Thursday morning, the House approved an amendment barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And then, a few minutes later, it didn’t.
Initially, 217 House members voted “yes” on New York Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney’s LGBT rights amendment. The House’s vote clock hit zero. Democrats clapped and cheered. And then, ten minutes later, the yes vote dwindled to 212, the measure was defeated, and the House floor fell into chaos. Per Politico:
After the chair closed the vote, Democrats continued shouting in anger.
“There will be order in this chamber,” the chair said.
“No there will not be!” yelled Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), who stood at the base of the podium. She pounded her fists on the table in front of her.
Other Democrats chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Their outrage was over matters both substantive and procedural: Once the vote clock expires, the lawmaker holding the gavel is supposed to ask if any members wish to change their votes. Then, flip-floppers are expected to walk to the front of the room and switch their allegiance in person, rather than using the electronic voting machines. But on Thursday, this formality wasn’t observed – instead, the expiration of the clock was simply ignored, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his deputies twisted the arms of gay-friendly Republicans until the amendment was defeated.
President Obama has already issued an executive order banning all federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. But late Wednesday night, Republicans added an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that bars the federal government from denying contracts to corporations on the basis of their religious practices . That inspired Maloney, himself an openly gay man, to reiterate Obama’s new rule with his amendment. (Republicans claim that their amendment merely reiterates the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)
It’s a classic case of mutually valid but irreconcilable values: Democrats want to protect gay peoples’ right to equal treatment in the workplace; Republicans want to protect the right of arms merchants to discriminate against gay people without risking the loss of taxpayer money.
As conservatives have always done when their position is right on the merits and clearly going to stand the test of time, Speaker Paul Ryan defended the GOP’s stance on the grounds of “federalism.”
“This is federalism; the states should do this,” Ryan told the Hill. “The federal government shouldn’t stick its nose in its business.”
The procedural chaos was, in part, a result of norms established under Ryan’s Speakership. As a friendly gesture to his caucus’s tea-party hardliners, Ryan opened up the amendment process, allowing lawmakers wide latitude to offer last-minute changes to legislation – like, for example, anodyne assertions of LGBT rights that some Republicans can momentarily forget they oppose. Separately, Ryan promised a return to “regular order,” which heightened Democrats’ anger over Thursday’s haphazard voting process.
And, of course, Ryan has vowed to uphold the Hastert Rule, which stipulates that a Republican Speaker will never allow a floor vote on legislation that lacks the majority support of the GOP caucus. This last norm was likely the impetus for Thursday’s last-minute arm-twisting: The amendment briefly enjoyed the support of a majority of all House members, but not a majority of all Republicans. Thus, if it passed, the whole appropriations bill may have become untenable.
Still, Obama’s executive order remains on the books. So it’s not clear what impact Thursday’s vote will have in the real world – other than to boost fundraising for pro-LGBT Democrats.
“They literally snatched discrimination from the jaws of equality,” Congressman Maloney lamented to the Associated Press.
Let’s hope that this November, equality bites back.