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Prepared Remarks of OMB Director Shaun Donovan, Williams Institute Spring Reception

Editor’s Note – The following prepared remarks were originally delivered by OMB Director Shaun Donovan at the Williams Institute’s annual Spring Reception on May 20, 2015. Director Donovan spoke about driving the President’s vision and budget for a whole range of issues confronting the LGBT community, including homelessness, poverty, HIV/AIDS and expanding and improving LGBT data collection.

May 20, 2015

Prepared Remarks of OMB Director Shaun Donovan, Williams Institute Spring Reception

I want to thank Brad Sears, Chuck Williams, and the remarkable team at the Williams Institute for inviting me to speak.

For 14 years, the Williams Institute has served as one of our Nation’s leading think tanks on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.  Your rigorous, independent research has influenced legislation codified in the halls of Congress, made its way into numerous Supreme Court briefs, and has helped make extraordinary progress in improving the day-to-day lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people across the nation.

To put it into context, in 2001, when Chuck Williams founded the Institute:

  • a majority of Americans didn’t believe in equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples;
  • no state in the union recognized marriage equality;
  • the U.S. government banned people from entering this country because of their HIV status; and
  • gays and lesbians had to lie to fight on the battlefield for the country they loved;

Today, a majority of States recognize the right to marry the person you love.  Today, you cannot be fired from federal service because of your sexual orientation or gender identity.  Today, you don’t have to worry about a spouse in the hospital with the added fear of producing a legal document just to comfort the person you love. Today, because of the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, perpetrators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for crimes based on one’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  And today, if you are applying for federal housing assistance, you cannot be denied that assistance or shelter you need because of who you are, who you love, or what you look like – as former HUD Secretary, this is something I take a small measure of personal pride for.

At the Office of Management and Budget, we have a unique position in advancing and ingraining this progress into the fabric of how government serves the American people.  As the nucleus of the Federal Government, OMB’s core mission is to implement and enforce the President’s vision government-wide.  

We carry out that mission through all three of our functions: budget, management, and regulation.

Through the President’s budget, we have sought to support and expand opportunity for LBGT Americans.  In dozens of programs across the federal landscape – like healthcare, criminal justice, housing, and education – we have proposed expansion of the rights and benefits available to LGBT people. 

This year’s budget, for example, proposes to amend the Social Security Act to ensure all legally married same-sex couples be eligible to receive Social Security spousal benefits, regardless of where they live.  

This would mean that, for the first time, a couple that marries in a state that recognizes the dignity of their union, and then moves to another state that does not, is still afforded the protection that Social Security spousal benefits provides to families. During the debate on the Senate budget resolution, a bipartisan majority of Senators endorsed this proposal.

We’ve also leveraged the budget to make more strategic investments in health-related priorities. As part of the President’s HIV Care Continuum Initiative to further the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and galvanize the national response to HIV, Federal agencies were directed to step up their related data collection efforts, including strengthening data collection to improve outcomes.  As a result, the 2016 Budget makes smarter investments by prioritizing HIV/AIDS resources within high-burden communities and among high-risk groups, including gay and bisexual men, African Americans and Latino Americans.

Now as OMB Director I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we’re currently engaged in a major debate about the budget – whether we’re going to take the President’s approach and fund needed investments, or follow the Republican budget framework that would lock in the harmful spending cuts known as sequestration and bring base discretionary funding for both non-defense and defense to the lowest levels in a decade, adjusted for inflation.  That choice has major implications for programs that are critical to the LGBT community.  For example, House appropriations bills considered so far would impose:

  • deep cuts on the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, which plays a critical role in protecting the civil rights of all Americans;
  • they would also cut Homeless Assistance Grants by about 12 percent relative to the President’s Budget, setting back efforts to combat homelessness, including among LGBT youth, who are particularly at risk of homelessness.  The President set ambitious goals to end homelessness, and while we’ve made progress, limited resources and the 2013 sequestration have kept us from making ever greater progress;
  • sequestration would result in 15,000 fewer at-risk individuals being provided with rapid rehousing relative to the President’s Budget, once again undermining our efforts to protect our Nation’s most vulnerable;
  • and although we have not yet seen their Labor-H bill, we know that based on the Republican sequestration budget framework and subcommittee allocations, that support for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program would be cut, leading to 5,000 fewer patients receiving critical anti-retroviral treatments and 125,000 fewer medical visits at Ryan White clinics; and
  • finally, under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are no longer able to offer plans that discriminate against consumers due to pre-existing conditions, and because of the law, insurers can no longer offer plans that turn someone away just because he or she is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  But Republicans would repeal the ACA, taking away health insurance from more than 16 million people who have gained coverage after five years.

Outside of the budgetary process, OMB has also worked with agencies to act without Congress to help combat discrimination, support equality, and make other important changes.  OMB’s Management arm oversees agency management of programs and resources to achieve legislative goals and Administration priorities.  

Through this team’s work coordinating implementation of Federal procurement policy, for example, OMB helped push forward the President’s recent Executive Order prohibiting Federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees and prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in federal employment.  

And our Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) worked with agencies across the Federal government to review and update policies to reflect the Supreme Court’s historic Windsor decision and confer benefits to same-sex married couples.

Another role of OIRA is promoting the quality and integrity of Federal government statistics and scientific information on which public policy is based by providing leadership, coordination, and standards for the decentralized Federal statistical system.  

OIRA’s Statistical and Science Policy (SSP) Branch promotes the quality and integrity of Federal government statistics and scientific information on which public policy is based by providing leadership, coordination, and standards for the decentralized Federal statistical system.

Good data is often the first step toward good policy.  For example, in 2012 at HUD, I announced the Equal Access to Housing Rule which laid out clearly and unequivocally that LGBT individuals and couples have the right to live where they choose.

As part of that announcement, I told the story of Mitch and Michelle DeShane. Michelle wanted to add her partner Mitch, a transgender man, to the housing voucher she received to find affordable housing.  The local housing authority denied her request.  They told her that the couple did not meet its definition of “family.”  Then, the DeShanes were referred to a neighboring housing authority -- because, as they were apparently told, and I quote, that housing authority, “accepts everyone -- even Martians.”

Stories like the DeShanes’ were all too common.  So when we were looking at how to build a robust policy to combat these forms of discrimination, we knew we had to start collecting the data.  The results of that effort led to the nation’s first-ever national study examining housing discrimination against same-sex couples in the private rental market.  

While many in this room could share countless stories describing experiences of discrimination, until this study there was no measurable government data to quantify those experiences.  The data helped us better understand how we administered HUD programs and also how we enforced our nation’s fair housing laws more broadly to see to it that future couples don’t ever have to endure the experiences of the DeShane family.

What was clear in that process, as you know, is that there is no one “best and only” way to measure the LGBT population.  In some cases, such as measuring access to or discrimination from services, we want to know about sexual orientation or gender identity.  In other cases, such as in health research, we may want to know about sexual behavior.  

When collecting information from young adults, we may want to ask questions about sexual attraction, rather than behavior. And we want to collect that information using language that is meaningful to the LGBT community and yet precise enough for policy needs—such as collecting information about transgender Americans.  There are harder measurement problems that need solving, too.  Differences in language and cultural understanding can mean that our measurement misses components of the LGBT population that may be most vulnerable. 

And the way that many household studies are conducted (where one person responds to a question on behalf of another) may be a concern for accurate measurement.

But it is important to get it right.  To help us do so, OIRA is leading on an inter-agency process to explore LGBT measurement issues, with enthusiasm across agencies.  The office is leveraging the same successful model used for the Interagency Working Group on Measuring Relationships in Federal Household Surveys that brought statistical experts across agencies together to improve measurement of same-sex couples in Federal household surveys.  

This relies on a long-established process guided by the core responsibilities of official Federal statistics: relevance, accuracy, objectivity, and protecting the trust of data providers.

On April 9th, OIRA held its first interagency meeting to explore LGBT Federal data collection issues.  The meeting was well-attended by statistical experts from across the government who are eager to discuss best practices around LGBT measurement, data collection and analysis, as well as research needs to inform improved measurement. 

Attendees expressed interest in pursuing ongoing conversations to address measurement challenges in this area, and OIRA will convene future interagency meetings with the goal of eventually developing recommendations for best practices that would inform Federal statistics in the future.

Before I wrap up, I want to acknowledge that over the last six years we have indeed made tremendous progress as a nation, but as the President often says, “we are in the 4th quarter of the Administration, and there is still work to be done.” 

This past Sunday, we commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.  We took the opportunity to reaffirm as a country that LGBT rights are human rights, celebrate the dignity of every person, and underscore that all people deserve to live free from fear, violence, and discrimination, regardless of who they are or whom they love. 

As the President stated, “We work toward this goal every day.  There is much more to do, and this fight for equality will not be won in a day.  But we will keep working, at home and abroad, and we will keep fighting, for however long it takes until we are all able to live free and equal in dignity and rights.”

We have made progress and we will make more.  I thank the Williams Institute, and everyone here tonight, for the remarkable work you do every day to ensure that LGBT rights are, indeed, human rights.  

Thank you for having me here today.  Thank you for the privilege of serving with each and every one of you.  As you work to ensure our country is a more perfect union, President Obama and I will be standing by your side each and every step of the way.  Thank you.