Written by Arnold Ahlert
The progressive revamping of the military has gotten another boost. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has offered an array of new benefits to the same-sex partners of service members, both active and retired, whether they are married or not. They include child care services, member-designated hospital visits, and the issuance of military ID cards to same-sex partners, granting them access to on-base commissaries, movie theaters and gyms.
“Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation. Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation,” said Panetta in a statement announcing the development. Yet all service members are not receiving equal support: unmarried heterosexual partners and their families are not getting these benefits.
All the new benefits were previously denied by the Pentagon. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) mostly prohibits more than 85 other benefits now granted to heterosexual military spouses and their children from being given to same-sex partners. These include medical care, housing allowances, death benefits and burial at Arlington National Cemetery. They will remain prohibited because making such changes “presents complex legal and policy challenges due to their nexus to statutorily-prohibited benefits and due to ongoing reviews about how best to provide scarce resources,” Panetta explained.
Such policy challenges are reflected by the reality that same-sex couples are not legally prohibited from qualifying for on-base housing. But Pentagon officials were concerned that following the “spirit of the law” outlined in DOMA required further review. Those concerns centered around fairness and the reaction of other military members, including married couples who could be bumped from housing lists by same-sex couples.
In a statement issued Monday decrying this development, the Center for Military Readiness (CMR) noted that by “equating same-sex domestic partnerships with natural marriage, the lame-duck Secretary of Defense has created a new inequity. Unmarried same-sex couples signing Secretary Panetta’s on-paper-only ‘Declaration of Domestic Partnership’ will have special rights, status, and benefits that are denied to opposite-sex domestic partners and their dependents.”
CMR was equally upset with the incrementalist nature of the move, and where it will inevitably lead. “Eventual correction of this inequity in the name of ‘consistency,’ and eventual extension of medical, housing and other costly benefits on an incremental basis, will rob even more funds from limited defense budget accounts that are devoted to traditional family support.”
Maintaining that traditional family support is likely to be further eroded. DOMA will be reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States this summer. If two lower court rulings are any indication, it will very likely be overturned. If that occurs, Panetta’s memo indicated that full military benefits will be extended to same-sex couples. With regard to the current changes, Panetta is giving the services until October 1 to effect them, but said they should make every effort to get it done by the end of August.
When the military repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” as their official policy for dealing with gay soldiers in 2011, twenty additional benefits became available to same-sex partners, including the ability to be listed as a beneficiary on the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance policy (SGLI), a death benefit, and hospital visitation rights. This prompted gay advocacy groups to campaign for an additional 100 benefits to be extended to gay couples. Panetta extended 22. Eligibility for the new benefits will require same-sex couples to file a “declaration of domestic partnership” to access such benefits in the 41 states where gay marriage remains illegal. A senior Pentagon official estimated the new benefits would affect approximately 5,600 same-sex couples with an active-duty service member, 3,400 serving with the National Guard or Reserves, and 8,000 military retirees.
Gay and lesbian advocates praised Panetta for the move. “Secretary Panetta’s decision today answers the call President Obama issued in his inaugural address to complete our nation’s journey toward equality, acknowledging the equal service and equal sacrifice of our gay and lesbian service members and their families,” said Allyson Robinson, an Army veteran and executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an association of actively serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender U.S. military personnel. “We thank him for getting us a few steps closer to full equality–steps that will substantively improve the quality of life of gay and lesbian military families,” she added.
Yet the CMR reminds Americans that, as it is with so many policy decisions enacted by this administration, congressional input is irrelevant. ”Once again, members of Congress are being cut out of the picture by the lame-duck Secretary of Defense, who will not have to cope with the consequences,” their statement reads. “Far from conducting a ‘careful review,’ administration officials have disregarded their own previous commitments regarding marriage that they made to Congress in 2010.”
Regardless, some members of Congress praised the move. “The administration is doing what it can within the constraints that are in place, but the job is not done,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “I look forward to continuing to work with the administration and my colleagues in Congress to achieve full equality in the military.”
Others shared the same concerns as the CMR. “We are on a slippery slope here,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Why would the (Defense Department) extend benefits to same-sex partners and then deny cohabiting heterosexual couples the same benefits? The Department of Defense is essentially creating a new class of beneficiary that will increase costs and demand for limited resources that are currently available for military families, active and reserve forces, and retirees.”
Those resources will be further strained if sequestration occurs. The Pentagon will be required to cut $42 billion by Sept. 30. Memos sent to Congress by Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that the military will be reduced to one where Army brigades are unprepared to fight, Navy air craft carriers will remain undeployed and the Air Force will be incapable of operating 24- hour radar surveillance.
Even if such scenarios are exaggerated, adding a whole new benefit class to the cost of military operations will certainly strain the military’s budget even further–which may be precisely the point. Sequestration, which was originally Barack Obama’s idea, is automatic. As a result, Republicans have been disinclined to negotiate any changes to impending spending cuts. Since there are no coincidences in politics, Panetta’s announcement, coming on the same day as Obama’s State of the Union speech, is very likely designed to pressure Republicans into renegotiating that sequester, even as administration officials take credit for another military “milestone.” It remains to be seen where the balancing act between progressive social values and military preparedness leads.