Outside groups seek to influence vote on LGBT workplace discrimination


The Senate's Monday cloture vote on the 2013 iteration of the Senate Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is either an important political litmus test for a Republican party in search of a new, more inclusive image or a crucial referendum on American civil liberties — depending on your viewpoint. The bill would extend federal anti-discrimination protections to workers discriminated against because of their gender or sexual orientation. Currently, in 21 states it is illegal to fire an employee for being gay or a lesbian; in 17 states such protections exist for transgendered individuals. While observers are skeptical of the legislation's chances in the House, outside groups have spent bucket loads on grassroots and traditional lobbying in support of the law. On the other side? Not so much.

A review of lobbying disclosure files that mention the Senate bill reveals that only three of the 23 groups lobbying on the law oppose it. While the vagaries of Senate lobbying filings mean that it is possible that there are some other groups lobbying on this issue without explicitly listing the bill, a closer look at some of the groups involved may be telling.

The three groups that have reported lobbying against the legislation — the Family Research Council, National Religious Broadcasters and the Traditional Values Coalition — are all social-conservative groups that lack the deep coffers of some other K Street heavy hitters. The groups combined for a relatively small total of $45,300 spent on third quarter lobbying, while just one of the most prominent groups in support of extending the workplace protections, the Human Rights Campaign, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this quarter paying lobbyists to argue their case to lawmakers.

Others jumping into the fray in favor of the landmark legislation include the NAACP, the National Education Association and the American Unity Fund — an advocacy group aimed at prodding GOP lawmakers to take a more moderate stance on gay issues. Paul Singer, the financial impetus behind the Unity Fund, has enlisted Republican lobbyists in the hopes of assuaging the fears of conservative members afraid of sullying a socially conservative voting record. Fueling those fears are lawmaker "report cards" from conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which is opposed to the bill on the grounds that it would "severely undermine civil liberties, increase government interference in the labor market and trample religious liberty."

Beyond the steps of Capitol Hill pro-LGBT rights groups have organized an extensive ground game, while opposition groups on the religious right have also tried to stir up their grass roots.

The Human Rights Campaign deployed 30 field officers to generate thousands of e-mails, postcards and calls in favor of the Senate bill, the Washington Post reports. Meanwhile, groups like the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition have urged individuals in their corner to contact Congress to voice their concern (see the full list of supporters and opponents of the bill on OpenCongress).

However, other organizations have found ways to enter the debate without hiring a lobbyist. Forty faith groups from a variety of religions sent a letter to the Senate endorsing ENDA, while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops distributed their own message against the new law. 

While the grassroots campaigns have carried on, K Street's biggest player seems to be attempting an ENDA balancing act. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the single highest-spending lobbying client in the country — lists ENDA as one of the issues in its most recent lobbying report, but, when asked by Sunlight for their position on the bill, a representative wrote in an e-mail that although "the Chamber has been in contact with proponents of the bills…Consistent with our prior positions on the bill the Chamber remains neutral on ENDA." 

The legislation needs 60 votes to avoid a filibuster and is expected to achieve that, setting the stage for Senate passage later this week.

Palmer Gibbs contributing; Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons