January 04, 2007
Posted by: Chris
An interesting post from North Dallas Thirty in response to my criticism of Jim Kolbe, the openly gay Arizona congressman retiring this month. I took Kolbe, a Republican, to task for faulting the Human Rights Campaign for not doing more about extending Social Security survivor benefits to gay couples.
My point was that to accomplish that goal, Congress would first need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which Kolbe supported, a vote he took until this month to recant. I should point out that North Dallas Thirty, a gay Republican who works in the human resources field, easily eclipses my knowledge of Social Security and pension regulations. He points out in response that extending the Social Security survivor benefit to gay couples can be accomplished in ways other than repealing DOMA and recognizing marriage licenses issued to gay couples.
In the alternative, he suggests a broader pension reform that allows Americans to elect a Social Security beneficiary, much as they do on their 401(k)-type plans, without regard to whether the beneficiary is a spouse, partner, friend, or what have you. The beneficiary would still only become eligible upon reaching retirement age, though Social Security could be reformed so that the beneficiary doesn't have to choose between his own benefits or those he receives as a beneficiary.
I will plead ignorant about the budgetary consequences of that sort of Social Security reform, but it does appeal to me by leveling the playing field among not just gay and straight couples, but those in long-term relationships and those who are single — we all pay taxes into the system after all.
Conversely, NDT's reform gives me pause for the same reason. Simply because we've been at the receiving end of discrimination, the idea of moving government out of the marrying business can sound attractive. But there are good reasons why government subsidizes marriages, as a way to promote stable lives, protect children and the interests of spouses whose household contribution can't be measured simply in financial terms.
These same interests aren't necessarily at play if people can simply elect a beneficiary based upon whatever criteria they want. While that sort of freedom makes sense for their own private retirement accounts, requiring our tax dollars to subsidize these other relationships is another story.
For the same reasons, I'm troubled by how domestic partner laws are being used to help senior citizens evade Social Security regulations, keeping their survivor benefits even though they have merged households with someone already receiving benefits. I'm not questioning their need, but in a system that is already facing monetary crisis, I do question the subsidy justification — even as I welcome their support, in places like Arizona, for preserving domestic partnerships for gay couples who cannot marry.
For the same reason, extending Social Security benefits to unmarried "domestic partners" is, to me, an intermediate measure that should be offered only to those couples who cannot marry (i.e., same sex couples). Otherwise, we risk following the path of European countries that have offered so many attractive "marriage-lite" alternatives that far fewer couples are marrying and the birthrate has dramatically declined.
We should be careful about promoting well-intentioned social policies that can have unintended and disruptive impact down the road.
December 31, 2006
Posted by: Chris
His last session of Congress behind him, retirement from public office only days away, Jim Kolbe has finally found his voice — or at least cleared his throat. The gay Republican from Arizona granted a few farewell interviews before he steps down after more than two decades in Congress, to be replaced fittingly by a Democrat.
So with absolutely nothing left at stake, no political capital to lose, Kolbe finally took baby steps toward righting two long-standing wrongs: He admitted he was wrong to vote in favor of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, and for the first time I'm aware of, he came out in favor of gay marriage.
Oddly enough, the admissions didn't come in an interview he gave before Christmas to the Washington Blade. That article mentioned only that Kolbe defended his DOMA vote because the law allows states to make their own decision on whether to marry gay couples. As I wrote for the Blade's blog back in July, that's excuse won't fly:
Kolbe rationalizes his support for DOMA the way some others have, as "states rights" legislation that really just prevents one state that marries gay couples from "forcing" every other state to legally recognize those marriage licenses. But Kolbe knows better than that. DOMA goes much further, blocking the federal government as well from giving any legal recognition to married gay couples.
Ironically, Kolbe complains later in the interview that the Human Rights Campaign hasn't devoted more energy to extending Social Security survivor benefits to gay couples — a move that would require repealing the half of DOMA that goes unmentioned in the article. Instead, Kolbe told the Blade, his only regret was that he was pressured into coming out — by an article about DOMA the Advocate was working on back in 1996 that Kolbe feared would out him. The article doesn't mention another irony; that years later, Judy Weider, the Advocate editor at the time, admitted she had scrapped the story after her publisher said straight advertisers would bolt if the magazine outed someone.
It was in another farewell interview, this one with his hometown Arizona Daily Star, that Kolbe owned up on DOMA and spoke approvingly, for the first time I'm aware of, about gay marriage:
On gay marriage, [Kolbe] said it or civil unions will be pretty widespread in this country in a decade or two because it is a fundamental human right that people should be able to legally celebrate the commitment of relationships. "Friends of mine in New York have been together for 45 to 50 years," Kolbe said. "Shouldn't we celebrate that?"
But with the exception of one point, Kolbe said he didn't regret his 1996 vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse recognition of gay marriages approved in other states. His vote on that bill prompted a gay-oriented magazine to prepare an article "outing" him as a homosexual, which led Kolbe to publicly declare that he is gay. "I could make a very good argument that marriage belongs in the hands of the state," he said. "I don't think that should be changed."
His regret on that vote centers on the act's failure to grant participants in gay marriages, in states where they are legal, the right to federal benefits such as Social Security and Medicare earned by one's partner — the same rights that spouses in traditional marriages have. "What I would say now. … I recognize that we have to have some protection at the federal level," Kolbe said.
It's about time, Congressman Kolbe. Ten years later, you finally own up to a vote cast no doubt from within a fearful closet. Though both the Blade and Daily Star articles portray the DOMA vote as Kolbe's one gay-rights failure, his HRC scorecard before coming out was roughly a 50 on a scale of zero to 100.
Neither article also mentions Kolbe's unwillingness to aggressively push immigration rights for binational gay couples — those couples where one partner is American and the other is not. Kolbe was a co-sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, which would extend to gay couples the same rights heterosexual married couples have in this regard. But he didn't use the considerable influence he had on the issue this year, given his role as one of the most prominent moderate Republicans in the House pushing the White House version of immigration reform.
No one is arguing a more vocal push from Kolbe would have made the difference for UAFA, especially since immigration reform died on the vine, but having done nothing, the legislation is still at the starting blocks, instead of being advanced somewhat down the line. Kolbe's relative silence on UAFA is especially disturbing since he knows up close and personal the difficult choices faced by gay binational couples. For one thing, three top former leaders of the Log Cabin Republicans are in binational relationships with partners from Latin America. For another, so is Kolbe. (For those who don't know, I should disclose that I am as well.)
Unfortunately, Kolbe's timidity on gay marriage, DOMA and immigration reform aren't the only things tarnishing his two decades in Congress. The Mark Foley scandal stuck to Kolbe as well, since it turns out one of Kolbe's former pages asked the Arizona congressman to help convince Foley to stop contacting him. Both interviews touch on the subject, though he told the Blade only that he was happy the House ethics committee concluded no rules were broken. He doesn't mention that the House report largely lets him off the hook because he is retiring from Congress and thereby escaping the committee's jurisdiction.
Also lost in the shuffle of the Foley report were the disturbing things the committee did report about Kolbe, including the former page's recollection that Kolbe tried to convince him not to come forward about his problem with Foley after the scandal broke in October, as well as how Jeff Trandahl, the (gay) then-chief clerk of the House, who had oversight of the page program, repeatedly warned Kolbe that he was being too familiar with pages, and that Trandahl considered Foley and Kolbe distractions from the program.
The Blade article also left out that Kolbe is also under criminal investigation for his own relationship with young male pages, based on complaints that surfaced about a trip he took to the Grand Canyon with a group of them back in 1996. The Daily Star asked him about it, and Kolbe defended it as "completely above board," "a very legitimate trip" and "a terrific experience for 12 people over three days."
In a final irony, Kolbe's page problem may impact his future work plans. Kolbe, 67, told the Daily Star that in addition to work for the German Marshall Fund, he plans to teach a class next fall at the University of Arizona. No doubt administrators there are already reconsidering that plan, given the allegation that Kolbe abused his power relationship with young people.
It didn't have to be this way, of course. But as with Foley and other closeted politicians, Kolbe is in many ways a product of his generation. His departure leaves gay Republicans with no out representatives in Congress, and we can only hope that whoever follows in their footsteps will do so with greater integrity.
December 09, 2006
Posted by: Chris
As expected, the House ethics committee report on the Mark Foley scandal answers more questions about how the matter was handled than initial press accounts suggested. More on that later.
In the meantime, my general conclusion is that the report is a hypocritical exercise in exactly the same type of buck-passing and willful ignorance that the committee criticizes House members and staffers for exhibiting when they learned over time about the disgraced Florida Republican's unseemly interest in teenage pages.
The report has already come in for some justifiable criticism for concluding that no ethics rules were violated, but to be fair the applicable ethics rule — that "members and staff act at all times
in a manner that reflects creditably on the House" — is so vague as to be useless as a proscriptive against particular conduct.
The ethics committee points out that the rule "does not mean that every error in judgment or failure to exercise greater oversight or diligence establishes a violation." Fair enough, but the committee never goes on to spell out when such errors in judgment or diligence would give rise to a violation. Instead, it comes off like the Supreme Court's infamous standard for when pornography can be deemed legally "obscene": they know it when they see it.
A New York Times editorial nailed the point. "No, not every error or failure should be a violation," the Times allowed, "but certainly the ones that lead to an elected official’s sexually stalking teenage boys while his colleagues turn a blind eye or cover it up should be. We’d set the bar at least there. Apparently, it’s too high for the House."
Rather than find rule violations, the House ethics committee issued a "strong reminder" — feel the teeth! — that "the failure to exhaust all reasonable efforts to call attention to potential misconduct involving a member and House page is not merely the exercise of poor judgment; it is a present danger to House pages and to the integrity of the institution of the House."
Got that? Failure to protect the teens in the House page program "is a present danger … to the integrity of the institution of the House" but isn't so bad that it fails to "reflect creditably on the House" in violation of ethics rules. (I'm not engaging in an unfair cut-and-paste job here; these two conclusions are contained in adjoining paragraphs on p. 4 of the report!) Either the "integrity of the House" is already so sullied that you can be a present danger to it and still reflect creditably on it, or the report's line-drawing is so arbitrary that only a lawyer could understand it (or write it).
But the real failure of the ethics committee investigators is they did exactly what they criticize other House members and staff of doing. The committee criticizes "a disconcerting unwillingness to take responsibility for resolving issues regarding Rep. Foley's conduct. Rather than addressing the issues fully, some witnesses did far too little, while attempting to pass the responsibility for acting to others. Some relied on unreasonably fine distinctions regarding their defined responsibilities" (p. 70).
Et tu, committee members? The report is chockful of excuses why the committee chose not to follow the most damning leads, even while finding fault in others for doing exactly the same thing. Rather than learn the full extent of Foley's misconduct with House pages, committee members remarkably chose not to investigate the sexually explicit IMs between Foley and former pages that actually led to his resignation.
Oh, they claim to have "devoted substantial effort to determining whether any House member, officer or employee was aware of or saw the sexually graphic instant messages" (p.74). But that "substantial effort" apparently amounted only to asking those already implicated by Foley-gate to 'fess up to what they knew. The committee admits that it "did not seek to investigate fully all instances in which Rep. Foley may have had improper communications with pages or former pages, or to determine the complete facts and circumstances surrounding the instant messages that were the cause of his resignation" (p. 72).
The committee's excuse? Foley had resigned and so was outside their jurisdiction. Sound like "unreasonably fine distinctions regarding their defined responsibilities"? How could the committee hope to know if House members and staff, including in the Republican leadership, knew about sexually explicit IMs without first nailing down (1) all the instances when Foley sent such IMs; and (2) who the recipients might have told or forwarded copies of the communications?
A similar escape clause is adopted when it comes to Jim Kolbe, the other openly gay House Republican, who was identified by (also gay) chief House Clerk Jeff Trandahl as among those with unseemly interest in teenage pages. The committee admits that during its investigation of Foley, it learned about "allegations made regarding Kolbe and his interaction with former House pages" (p. 77), but still chose not to investigate.
The committee's excuse? Kolbe is already under a criminal probe and he's retiring at the end of his term anyway, putting him outside the committee's jurisdiction (p78). Sound like "attempting to pass the responsibility for acting to others"? How could the commitee know without investigating whether current House members and staff, including in the same Republican leadership, knew about Kolbe's alleged misconduct and failed to act?
By putting all these unduly restrictive limits on its investigation, the House ethics committee ultimately sends exactly the wrong message to members of Congress and their staff. Because the real takeaway here is that if you're going to willfully ignore signs that a congressman is engaging in improper conduct, you better hope the conduct you're ignoring is so bad that the congreassman is forced to resign or is subject to a criminal probe, preferably both. That's the surest way to avoid the watchful oversight of the House ethics committee.
October 19, 2006
Posted by: Chris
Jeff Trandahl, the now-openly gay former clerk of the U.S. House, finally told his side of Foley-gate to someone: the House ethics committee. In testimony earlier today, he reportedly pointed the finger at his old boss: Ted Van Der Meid, chief counsel for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as the staffer who Trandahl kept informed about all matters Foley.
Even before Trandahl had finished testifying, ABC News' Brian Ross, who broke the first stories about Mark Foley's sexually explicit online chats with former pages, reported the gist of Trandahl was expected to say:
The Republican source said Trandahl planned to name Ted Van Der Meid, the speaker's counsel and floor manager, as the person who was briefed on a regular basis about any issue that arose in the page program, including a "problem group of members and staff who spent too much time socializing with pages outside of official duties." One of whom was Mark Foley.
Ross further reported that Van Der Meid expects also to be called to testify before the House committee investigating the matter.
Not surprisingly, the attention — from the mainstream media and the blogosphere — appears to be focused on tarring Hastert with any and all information about Foley reported by Trandahal and others to the speaker's staff — principally Van Der Meid and staff chief Scott Palmer. Many of these analysts are assuming that Hastert must have learned about the matter because he is "unusally close" to his top aides, even sharing a D.C. townhouse with two of them. Hastert has flatly denied that claim, a remarkably stupid move if in fact he was kept in the loop. It just doesn't fly as a theory for me.
Follow the jump for a more plausible theory than blaming Hastert:
October 15, 2006
Posted by: Chris
I wrote last week about how on Oct. 9 and 10, Huffington Post included a teaser at the top of its home page that a TV network was developing a story about how another gay Republican in Congress, Jim Kolbe, of Arizona, also has had inappropriate contact with teenage male pages. I was so busy with my move and travel to Rio late in the week, that I missed this brief story posted on MSNBC on Oct. 11.
The "bombshell" is anything but. The U.S. attorney's office in Arizona is investigating a camping trip to the Grand Canyon taken by Kolbe with two former pages, both male and 17 at the time in 1996, coincidentally the same year he was pushed out of the closet for supporting the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. Also on the trip were Kolbe's sister, several of his congressional staffers and even several park employees.
Two days later, MSNBC updated the story, citing claims by an unnamed source who apparently sparked the investigation that Kolbe showered one of the pages with unwanted attention that included "fawning, petting and touching" the teenager's arm. NBC also interviewed the two former pages:
One of them said that Kolbe was a gentleman and never acted in an improper fashion. He recalled that the pair spent time in Kolbe's house at one point — and briefly were alone with him on the trip — and that Kolbe always acted professionally and decently.
The other would not comment on Kolbe's behavior during the trip or characterize it in any way.
"I don't want to get into the details," he said. "I just don't want to get into this... because I might possibly be considered for a job in the administration."
However, the former page — who is the one to whom Kolbe allegedly paid special attention — said he had a "blast" on the trip and did not report anything improper to his parents or any House officials after the trip. He said he has a favorable impression of the page program to this day and likes Kolbe.
Considering the hoopla surrounding Mark Foley's misconduct, the power relationship between members of Congress and pages, and the age of consent (18) in Arizona, the U.S. attorney's "preliminary investigation" is understandable. Leaking that investigation to the press, however, would be troubling and suggest a less than honorable motive could be at work. The NBC News report does indicate that such an investigation would normally be handled by the FBI, not the U.S. attorney, who is appointed by the president.
Are Republicans looking to pin the Foley scandal on gay members of Congress, along the lines suggested by some of the White House allies who've shamelessly played on the pedophile slur that still haunts gay men? Did Kolbe give them ammunition by testing the lines of fraternal conduct? It's probably a matter of time until the mainstream media reports, as I mentioned in my previous post, that Kolbe's partner now is young enough to be his son, or even his grandson.
Perhaps the U.S. attorney's office didn't leak the investigation. Maybe the source from the trip complaining about Kolbe's behavior also brought the story to the press. Or maybe the U.S. attorney's office thought that some public coverage of possible misconduct by Kolbe with one former page might bring others out of the woodwork, which is exactly how the Foley scandal broke.
Whatever the whole story, the three threads of Foley-gate — Foley's own misconduct, the apparent attempt by gay GOP staffers to keep it quiet, and now Kolbe's relationship with teenage males — are all headed in directions that could be used to scapegoat homosexuality as a common factor in the scandal and its cover-up.
October 10, 2006
Posted by: Chris
For almost two days, the blog-news compilation site Huffington Post included a prominent tease at the top of the home page that TV networks were working on a story about inappropriate conduct with pages by gay Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe. Now that mention has disappeared in a puff of smoke, without any emerging story to deliver the goods.
Waiting to confirm facts before reporting them is what separates journalists from rumor-mongerers. It's too easy for people to conclude that where there's smoke, there's fire. Spreading rumors that Jim Kolbe — or anyone else — might have engaged in predatory behavior is not only irresponsible, it plays on the worst kind of anti-gay stereotypes.
You would think that Arianna Huffington herself would no better than to rumor-monger about the private lives of others. After all, she endured quite a bit of very personal press after Michael Huffington came out as bisexual during the course of the couple's 1997 divorce. Several years earlier, Michael had been narrowly defeated by Dianne Feinstein for a U.S. Senate seat from California.
As for Kolbe, he is something of an enigma. The Arizona Republican was in the closet for much of his political career, coming out in 1996 only after he feared he was about to outed by the Advocate for voting in favor of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. (Mark Foley was targeted by outing activists in the same timeframe, but stayed in the closet.) Since coming out, Kolbe's voting record has been considerably more pro-gay, though he has never renounced his vote for DOMA.
I took Kolbe to task earlier this year in a Washington Blade editorial for not using his influence on immigration issues — press reports indicated he was a key White House ally in a sea of xenophobic House Republicans — to introduce into the national debate the Uniting American Families Act. Kolbe is a co-sponsor of UAFA, which allows gay Americans to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration purposes in the same way straight Americans can.
Kolbe had attended a Log Cabin Republican black-tie dinner in Washington weeks earlier with his boyfriend, who is a Panamanian national in the U.S. on a temporary visa. Even though the issue hit so close to home, Kolbe insisted there was no point in raising UAFA because it didn't have the votes to pass and the immigration debate was difficult enough without it.
Looking back, I also could have pointed out that Kolbe's boyfriend (partner?) is much, much younger than the Arizona congressman, who at 64 has already announced this is his last term in Congress. Of course, having a 20-something boyfriend by no means proves the "developing story" teased by Huffington's site, but at least it's a fact — and one the media would have reported days ago if Kolbe were straight.
Posted by: Chris
One day after the Washington Post broke the story that gay Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe received a complaint from a congressional page way back in 2000 about inappropriate attention from fellow Republican Mark Foley, Kolbe issued a short statement with a few more details about the "corrective action" he says he took.
Kolbe said he learned from the former page, who Kolbe had appointed, about "emails from Rep. Foley that made him feel uncomfortable." Kolbe's "corrective action" was not, as the Post report had suggested, to confront Foley directly, but to "pass along the complaint to Rep. Foley's office and the clerk who supervised the Page program." Kolbe took no additional action, he said, because the former page never raised the issue again and had graduated from the page program.
Kolbe will no doubt come under fire for thinking it was "corrective action" to refer the complaint to Foley's staff. Why would Foley's office do anything other than bury the matter, perhaps with a private, toothless warning to the closeted congressman?
Kolbe doesn't name to whom within Foley's office he directed the complaint, but expect yet more heat if it was Kirk Fordham, Foley's gay chief of staff. The other recipient of Kolbe's referral also isn't named, but is identified as "the clerk who supervised the page program." That would be Jeff Trandahl, the gay Republican who was then chief clerk of the U.S. House. If Kolbe's "corrective action" was to refer the complaint to other gay Republicans, it lends further credence to what appears to have been a "thin pink line" of gay Republicans covering for Foley. It also puts Trandahl further on the hotseat.
Until now, Trandahl's confirmed knowledge of Foley's "page problem" dated only to the end of last year — soon before Trandahl quietly resigned his post — when House Speaker Dennis Hastert asked Trandahl and Rep. John Shimkus to talk to Foley about an overly friendly email to a former page in Louisiana. Now it appears Trandahl was made aware at least five years earlier about Foley's pursuit of these teenage males.
A number of reports on "Foley-gate" have quoted former pages as saying they were unofficially warned about Foley's unusual interest in individual pages. Hopefully these sorts of nudges weren't the only "corrective actions" taken by Trandahl and his staff.
Trandahl's complete silence on the matter only underlines the questions he hasn't answered: How many other such incidents was he aware of, and did he inform the speaker or his staff, or Shimkus, or anyone else for that matter, about the pattern of Foley's conduct? The same questions could be asked of Fordham, if in fact he was the person in "Foley's office" alerted by Kolbe.