With the long-floundering Employment Non-Discrimination Act finally picking up steam in Congress, Republican leader responses to the bill have ranged from silence to vaguely defined moral objection. The proposed legislation, which would outlaw employer discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, has been brought up regularly in Congress since 1994. For the first time in the bill’s history, Republican opposition might not be enough to keep it from getting off the floor.
But for a party at the nexus of debates over its identity moving toward 2016 — on the one side over its efficacy as an alternative to the Democratic Party and on the other over its ability to remain ideologically independent from Tea Party influence — leaders should question what value opposing ENDA really has. Since the onset of the Obama era reignited much of the social issues focus of the Democratic Party, Republicans on the national and state levels have attempted to frame their opposition as economically oriented, focusing on welfare reform, limitations on organized labor and issues surrounding the national debt. As a piece of legislation with blossoming bipartisan support, ENDA represents the intersection of winning issues for both parties — for Democrats, expanding the legal rights of LGBT people and for Republicans, making it easier for a population with historically low employment levels to enter the workforce. The decision of Republican leadership to punt on ENDA represents a missed opportunity for not just bipartisanship, but for the party to reframe its brand as jobs-focused ahead of 2016.
Since President Barack Obama’s election, the Republican Party has made a concerted effort to more clearly brand itself as a “jobs party,” making job-creation and economic issues the centerpiece of its 2012 platform. Central to Republican objections over ENDA is the role of the House, which could prove a roadblock to the legislation’s ultimate passage. House Speaker John Boehner’s opposing position on the issue makes a long-shot grab for an economic argument, framing ENDA as a threat to small business jobs and a potential source of frivolous lawsuits. Statements made by Tea Party-aligned leaders, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, more clearly betray their social conservatism while still centering upon jobs and hiring, citing concerns over the religious freedoms of Christian employers. The effect is a muddled message for voters, at once seemingly jobs-oriented yet premised on denying employment insurances to a specific category of workers.
This is far from the first recent instance in which the Republican message on jobs has gotten lost in translation. Republican talking points on “job-creation” deal largely in the abstract, arguing for general economic deregulation and tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals. But Republican economic policy over the last several years — largely defined by Tea Party ideology — has had very specific implications for the work force, dealing much less with expanding the ability of individuals to get a job than with placing limitations on workers in existing jobs. A study produced by University of Oregon economics professor Gordon Lafer, released last month by the Economic Policy Institute, focuses on new labor restrictions put in place by majority-Republican legislatures across the country. Lafer’s study found that contrary to popular belief, labor legislation touted by Republicans between 2011 and 2012 dealt less with rolling back the political footholds of organized labor — a classic GOP political interest — than with expansive initiatives affecting minimum wages and workplace protections for all workers, both public- and private-sector. In fact, Lafer argues that restrictions are aimed even more squarely at non-government workers: “for the 93 percent of private-sector employees who have no union contract, laws on matters such as wages and sick time define employment standards and rights on the job (were pursued). Thus, this agenda to undermine wages and working conditions is aimed primarily at non-union, private-sector employees.” Notably, Lafer suggests that the only widespread GOP initiative directly meant to expand the workforce — as is the intent of legislation like ENDA — has been loosening restrictions on child labor in several states.
With Republican claims to the “jobs party” title not stacking up against the reality of the party’s initiatives, more moderate Republicans with a stake in shifting the ideology of the future party have refrained from voicing opposition to ENDA. As 2016 approaches, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Chris Christie has already begun calling on the party to distance itself from the economic populism and far-right social conservatism of the Tea Party. Though as governor of New Jersey Christie has opposed a minimum wage increase in his state, limited the ability of unionized workers to collectively bargain and increased the amount those workers must contribute to state pensions, his labor reform practices remain more moderate than those of Republican governors in other states. While personally conservative on social issues, he’s backed away from battles on LGBT issues in recent years, also appointing an interim Senator who has since voted to support ENDA (New Jersey already outlaws anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit/contracting). In essence, the man who may be tasked with ideologically guiding the Republican Party in the near future is calling for more moderate positions on both economic and social fronts — treating opposition to expanding LGBT protections as a losing political cause.
In failing to make a convincing economic argument against ENDA, Republicans run the risk of appearing too focused on old social issues battles to adapt to the changing landscape of labor. Worse still for the party is missing a chance to turn lip service for getting Americans back to work into concrete legislation. As moderate Republicans continue to voice support for ENDA, holdouts in party leadership should reconsider the efficacy of maintaining their opposition. And with a majority of Republican voters in support of the bill, the political benefits of supporting ENDA might be felt earlier than 2016.