Pentagon balked on gay partner travel
Prior to the Easter recess, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to intervene with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in order to get Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s domestic partner on a military flight for a congressional fact-finding trip to Europe.
The speaker succeeded, but the issue continues to simmer for both sides. The Pentagon appears to be self-conscious about transporting gay domestic partners at a time when it continues to enforce a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in its own ranks. The speaker is sensitive to the gay rights issue but doesn’t want to be drawn into a situation where it appears she is dictating policy for the use of military planes.
Under House guidelines, members of Congress may take their spouses with them on military flights if there is room for them and when it is “necessary for protocol purposes.” Although Baldwin, the only openly gay woman elected to Congress, exchanged wedding vows with Lauren Azar in 1998, her home state of Wisconsin does not officially recognize same-sex marriages, and military officials were apparently unwilling to consider Azar a “spouse” within the meaning of the House guidelines.
In appealing to Gates, Pelosi aides said their boss was simply asking the defense secretary to follow a precedent established by her predecessor, former Republican Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Pelosi told Gates that Hastert had allowed Baldwin to take Azar on a previous trip abroad.
Gates, who was apparently unaware of any earlier trips, told the speaker that she was responsible for the House travel rules and had the authority to make an exception, according to officials on and off the Hill. His only requirement was that Pelosi send him a letter authorizing the trip. Pelosi sent such a letter moments after the phone call ended, and Azar was allowed on the plane.
The Pentagon and the speaker’s office remain divided over what the Gates-Pelosi agreement means for member travel abroad. Pelosi’s office awaits a follow-up letter from Gates laying out new criteria for the congressional use of military airplanes, while the Pentagon argues this was one instance in which the speaker waived her own rules to create an exception for an individual lawmaker.
“This is not an issue of DOD regulations,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. “Secretary Gates honored a request from Speaker Pelosi to make an exception to the House rules.
“But that’s really as far as it goes,” Morrell continued. “This should not be viewed as a precedent which would now permit all nonspouse travel. That said, Secretary Gates will, on a case-by-case basis, entertain the speaker’s future requests to make exceptions.”
Morrell said he expects Pentagon officials to send the speaker’s office their letter within the next few days.
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said, “We want to work with Secretary Gates to establish a procedure going forward.”
Baldwin’s office declined repeated requests for comment.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), another openly gay lawmaker, believes the military’s initial refusal to let Azar fly with Baldwin has more to do with the Bush administration’s opposition to same-sex marriage than with the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“I think the military was following orders,” Frank said. “I think the administration disapproves of same-sex marriage.”
Pelosi was scorched early in her tenure as speaker for her use of a military jet larger than the one Hastert used, a controversy that eventually died down after she pointed out that the smaller plane Hastert used cannot make the trip from Washington to her San Francisco district without stopping to refuel.
Congress established a special entitlement for military travel in 1954 as part of broader legislation to expand the country’s foreign aid programs. At the time, lawmakers gave themselves discretion to reimburse the military directly from the Treasury for any travel expenses, meaning the Pentagon doesn’t have to dip into its own budget to pay for members’ trips abroad and in the U.S.