On Wednesday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted 13-12 to continue to deny equal benefits to gay veterans who live in states without gay marriage. Currently, all active servicemembers and their same-sex spouses receive equal benefits—no matter where they live—under an order from the Department of Defense. But a statutory quirk instructs the Department of Veterans Affairs to look to veterans’ state of residency to determine their marital status. Thus, a gay servicemember who marries in California but resides in Texas will be denied access to various benefits.
The bill being considered on Wednesday would have fixed this unforeseen problem with an easy tweak, extending benefits to all veterans with a valid marriage license. Every Democrat on the committee supported the bill, but only one Republican, Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey, broke ranks to join them. The other GOP members cited a vague concern for states’ rights. Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Florida, explained that “deference to the state is not motivated by hostility, it is motivated by adherence to the Constitution,” and claimed that “it is not appropriate to usurp the states’ power to democratically define marriage for their citizenry—not for personal belief, and not for bureaucratic convenience.”
We have, of course, heard this song before, when Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin attempted to deny benefits to gay, married National Guard members in her state, contrary to the Department of Defense’s demands. She later decided to deny benefits to all National Guard members just to discriminate against gay ones. Weeks later, Fallin caved and complied with the federal government—perhaps after a close reading of the Supremacy Clause revealed to her that she was flagrantly violating the law.
But in a sense, Miller’s notion of “deference to the state” is even more irritating than Fallin’s. Miller’s statement is so utterly inane, so completely and totally wrong about the structure of the U.S. government, that it reads more like a giveaway question on a seventh-grade true/false civics quiz than a statement by an ostensibly educated congressman. The VA is a federal agency that implements federal programs and looks to the federal government for its rules of operation, which are governed by federal law. There is no reason for the VA to look to state law to glean marital status except for an antiquated idiosyncrasy. Fixing this idiosyncrasy (which is, again, in a federal law) would do nothing to disrespect any state.
Because the Supreme Court has already ruled that the federal government must recognize valid gay marriages, a pending lawsuit forcing the VA to recognize all gay veterans is likely to succeed where Congress has failed. Still, it’s depressing to see our representatives incapable of fixing even the basest, most unjust forms of discrimination. Lately, some federal judges have suggested that gay rights advocates forego lawsuits in favor of democratic remedies. But if democracy can’t even get equal benefits to the spouses of gay servicemembers, we shouldn’t have much hope that it’ll bring gay citizens anything close to equal justice.