December 24, 2008
Yesterday, Bush signed into law the Worker, Retiree and Employer Recovery Act of 2008 (WRERA), requiring employers to allow employees to roll their retirement plans over to nonspouse partners. The Human Rights Campaign hailed the bill for allowing gay couples to share benefits. (link)
Currently if you are a married person and your employer provides you with a retirement plan with a death benefit and you die, your spouse can receive the death benefit directly deposited into an IRA in his or her name. If this rule was not in place and the surviving spouse was required to withdraw the entire benefit all at once, that would result in severe tax penalties due to early withdrawal. Also, if the surviving spouse was required to withdraw the money all at once, he or she could be bumped into a higher tax bracket.
This benefit has only been available for married people until now. The bill Bush signed into law expands this right to gay couples as long as the person with the employee benefit registers his or her partner as the beneficiary.
While extending to gay couples a benefit that married couples have, it also gives benefits to gay couples that straight people do not have. Let me explain. In my job, I often work with clients who may have multiple children together and either live together or have lived to together off-and-on but they have never gotten married. If these people had a retirement benefit like this, they could not do the same thing that now a gay couple will have the right to do. I think a better law than this one, would be a law that allows a person to pass on his or her retirement benefit to anyone he wishes without regard to familial status or special relationship or sexual orientation. I would let a son give it to his mother, or a father to his daughter or any person give it to his or her best friend. Since this is not what was in the bill however, I think Bush was correct to sign the bill into law. It addresses a real-life wrong that needed to be corrected.
While I oppose gay marriage, I think we must make accommodations to gay couples. This bill was a small step but it corrected an injustice that needed correcting. If we can address the needs of gay couples with laws such as this, then the demand for gay marriage will lessen and at the same time real problems will be resolved and injustices corrected.
I am still undecided on the issue of Civil Unions but am leaning toward acceptance of some form of it. It does not have to be called “civil unions” necessarily, although I see nothing wrong with that term. Maybe we could call this new status simply a “domestic registry.” If a union were registered, the registered couple (or more) would be eligible for a bundle of the rights now given only to married people. If a mother and her adult son wanted to be registered as a couple that would be OK by me as long as we do not call it marriage.
I am not so sure that all state sanctioned "marriage" should not be anything more than “civil unions” or a registration on a “domestic registry.” How about letting the state register the union and the church join people together in holy matrimony if that is what the couple desire and they meet that faiths requirements? Face it; marriage does not carry the same weight it used to. Many couples wait until they have their first child to get married or they live together without ever getting marriage. Marriage also is certainly not until “death do us part.” When a couple can void a marriage simply by declaring incompatibility, marriage is not such a terrible commitment or strong bond. I do think society has an interest in promoting strong families, but I am not so sure that government conferring certain benefits only on “married” couples is the vehicle for promoting strong families.
As to the politics of this issue, I am surprised that this story has not gotten more coverage. I was out of town for the holidays visiting family on the day this news occurred and I missed it. I did not read a newspaper or watch TV on that day, so I don’t know if this got much coverage or not, but I assume it did not. An Internet search does not reveal a lot of coverage by mainstream news sources covering the issue or big name commentators commenting. I read a lot blogs and chat groups and this is not big news in the blogosphere. I don’t understand it.
I do not expect liberals to say anything praiseworthy of George W. Bush, but would have thought that Bush signing a piece of pro-gay legislation would have been news. I am also very surprised that the religious right has not been all over this story. I would have expected them to nail Bush to the wall over this. Is Bush so unimportant that he is not worth criticizing? I would expect the televangelist, Focus on the Family, Phyllis Schlafly and the various pro-family organizations to be ballistic. Why are they not? I am pleased that the right has not been in an uproar over this issue. If the voice of the religious right is growing faint then I think that is a good thing for the Republican Party. I don’t think there is much benefit for Republicans to be seen as the party of gay bashing.