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Friday, March 8, 2013

Federal Benefits and the Same-Sex Partners of Federal Employees

Wendy Ginsberg
Analyst in American National Government

John J. Topoleski
Analyst in Income Security

The federal government provides a variety of benefits to its 4.4 million civilian and military employees and 4.7 million civilian and military retirees. Among these benefits are health insurance; enhanced dental and vision benefits; survivor benefits; retirement and disability benefits; family, medical, and emergency leave; and reimbursement of relocation costs. Pursuant to Title 5 U.S.C. Chapters 89, 89A, 89B, and other statutes, federal employees may extend these benefits to eligible spouses and children.

In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA, P.L. 104-199; 1 U.S.C §7) “[t]o define and protect the institution of marriage.” DOMA contains two provisions. The first provision allows all states, territories, possessions, and Indian tribes to refuse to recognize an act of any other jurisdiction that designates a relationship between individuals of the same sex as a marriage. The second provision prohibits federal recognition of these unions for purposes of federal enactments. Pursuant to DOMA, the same-sex partners of federal employees are not eligible to receive federal benefits that are extended to the spouses of federal employees. An estimated 34,000 federal employees are in same-sex relationships—including state-recognized marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships.

The Obama Administration has extended certain benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees and annuitants—and argued that it has done so within the parameters of existing federal statutes. On June 2, 2010, President Obama released a memorandum that extended specific benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, including coverage of travel, relocation, and subsistence payments.

Some Members of Congress argue that same-sex partners of federal employees should have access to benefits afforded married, opposite-sex couples in order to attract the most efficient and effective employees to federal service. Other Members of Congress argue that the law prohibits the extension of such benefits, and, therefore, actions to distribute any spousal benefits to samesex couples is contrary to both the text and spirit of DOMA.

Congress has had a long-standing interest in overseeing the benefits provided to federal employees. On the one hand, the federal government seeks to attract the most effective, highly trained workforce to address technical and complex issues. On the other hand, finite resources can present challenges when considering whether to extend benefits to federal employees. When DOMA was enacted, the House report that accompanied the legislation stated that a primary goal of the law was to “preserve scarce government resources.”

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that extending benefits to the partners of employees in same-sex relationships pursuant to S. 1910 would cost the federal government $144 million in discretionary spending between 2013 and 2022. CBO also estimated, however, that extending the benefits could “limit future rate increases” in federal health care costs because health care providers would be required to recover certain health care costs that previously went unrecovered. These recovered costs could lower the federal government’s health care premiums.

In the 112
th Congress, two bills were introduced that, if enacted, would have permitted federal employees to extend insurance, long-term care, and other benefits to same-sex partners. On November 18, 2011, Senator Joseph Lieberman introduced S. 1910, the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2011. That same day, Representative Tammy Baldwin introduced a companion bill, H.R. 3485, also called the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2011, in the House. On May 16, 2012, S. 1910 was ordered to be reported favorably from the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. H.R. 3485 was referred to multiple committees, but no further action was taken on the bill.

This report examines current policies on the application of benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees and reviews certain policy debates about the extension or removal of these benefits. This report also presents data on the prevalence of same-sex partner benefits in the private and public sector. This report focuses on federal benefits for same-sex partners and not on same-sex relationships in general. For more information on the implementation of DOMA and how it affects same-sex partnerships, see CRS Report RL31994, Same-Sex Marriages: Legal Issues, by Alison M. Smith. For information on private sector employee benefit plans and samesex partner benefits, see CRS Report R41998, Same-Sex Marriage and Employee Benefit Plans: Legal Considerations, by Jennifer Staman and CRS Report RS21897, The Effect of State- Legalized Same-Sex Marriage on Social Security Benefits, Pensions, and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), by John J. Topoleski.

Date of Report: February 28, 2013
Number of Pages: 32
Order Number: R42873
Price: $29.95

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