Monday, May 19, 2008

Illinois Legislator Promotes Civil Unions as Social Security Scam.

Once again, my representatives to the state legislature are not making me proud.

Greg Harris (D-13th District) is promoting civil union legislation with a unique argument. He is touting it as a way for heterosexual senior citizens to get certain benefits and privileges without jeopardizing their spousal Social Security benefits as they would by remarrying. He isn't calling it a Social Security scam, of course. Here is how he positions it:

While a lot of attention has been focused on how civil unions would benefit same-sex couples, little attention has been given to the largest group of potential beneficiaries of civil unions in Illinois: senior citizens. This week, I along with Senator David Koehler, Senator Heather Steans and a group of seniors held a press conference to highlight these benefits. The fact is that many seniors who are widows or widowers stand to lose their pension or social security benefits if they remarry. However, without legal recognition of their relationship, such as a marriage or civil union, these seniors can be denied the right to visit partners in the hospital, participate in healthcare decision making, and disposition of a deceased loved one’s remains.

(The underlining is mine. The non-parallel dependent clauses are all his.)

As you may recall, Harris's ally Senator Heather Steans is my state senator, and I've had some past complaints about her and Rep. Harris. This story is useful because it illustrates how their political minds are wired.

In fairness to Harris and Steans, this district has a high concentration of senior citizens and pandering to seniors seems to be key to political success here. The current U.S. Representative, Jan Schakowsky, built her political career as a senior citizens advocate.

The late columnist Mike Royko proposed that the Latin phrase "Ubi Est Mea" ("where's mine?") should be the Illinois state motto. Many Illinois seniors are way too comfortable with that particular ethos of Illinois politics.

Unfortunately, the benefits to seniors in this proposal are illusory.

Rep. Harris is the only openly-gay member of the Illinois General Assembly and if he does not support same-sex marriage, I'm sure the vast majority of his gay constituents do. I support same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage you can support on principle. Supporting civil unions always involves situational political considerations, since they are to marriage law normalization what medical marijuana is to drug law normalization.

One of the arguments for same-sex marriage and, by extension, civil unions is that life partners without legal status cannot access spousal benefits in Social Security and pensions. The simple argument in favor of civil unions in lieu of marriage has always been that they allow the redress of certain clear injustices without getting into the emotionally-loaded same-sex marriage argument.

Unfortunately, as civil unions have become more common, this use of them has been undercut in significant ways, probably most notably in 1996 by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which, by the way, was signed by President Bill Clinton.

DOMA defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman, and explicitly denies to same-sex couples marriage-based federal benefits. These include Social Security benefits, veterans' benefits, spousal benefits under qualified retirement plans, the unlimited estate and gift tax marital deduction, the ability to file income taxes as a married couple, and the ability to make split gifts as a married couple.

While DOMA makes civil unions useless for claiming federal benefits and privileges, they can still provide a number of benefits under state law, including the ability to receive state benefits, and the right to be involved in health care matters that normally are restricted to family.

HB1826 and SB2436 are the two pieces of civil union legislation pending in Illinois. They are unique in that they would provide for civil unions for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. In all states that currently recognize civil unions, they are an option for same-sex couples only. The only rationale I have heard for allowing opposite sex couples in Illinois to opt for civil unions instead of marriage is the Social Security scam proposed by Rep. Harris.

The scam is also being promoted at

If, in fact, Illinois does recognize civil unions between opposite-sex couples, how long do you think it will take for Social Security and every other affected entity to plug that loophole? DOMA defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Would it not then be reasonable to argue that DOMA effectively also defines marriage as any legally-recognized union between a man and a woman, regardless of its name?

Barack Obama, who Steans and Harris support for president, is on record as against same-sex marriage but for civil unions for same-sex couples. He also has said he supports allowing the states to legalize same-sex marriage if they want to, and to that end he opposed DOMA. (Symbolically, as he wasn't in a position to vote on it.) One can certainly imagine DOMA being repealed or substantially revised early in an Obama presidency especially if, as expected, Democrats control both houses of Congress. Assuming anyone falls for this silly proposition in the first place, how do you think heterosexual seniors who supported civil unions on this basis will feel when their little scam blows up on them?

Government and politics as practiced by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his legislative supporters gets more surreal by the day.


sku said...

FYI, the California Domestic Partnership law, which has been on the books since 1999 and has been amended several times since then such that since around 2005 it has become the legal equivalent of marriage (at least in terms of benefits), also applies to opposite sex couples at least one of whom is over 62 or meeting the benefits criteria of the SSA.

To my knoweldge the Feds have not made any attempt to take actions to deny benefits on that basis.

The reason these provisions have been included is as a poltical practicality. It has been effective as a means for the advocates of gay and lesbian rights to enlist the substnatial heft of the AARP in their lobbying efforts. I don't really have much problem with that...that's how politics works.

I don't really have much sympathy for the argument that this is somehow a Social Security scam. The greater scandal for me is that social security benefits, paid for by hard working Americans, are being denied to their same sex partners.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I agree it's a scandal that Social Security benefits, paid for by hard-working Americans, are denied to their same-sex partners. I would still consider it a scandal even if they didn't work all that hard.

The only practical solution is same-sex marriage. Civil unions don't work. Corrupting them for political expediency sure doesn't make them any better.

I don't know the SSA rules intimately (though that day is coming), but I still believe "scam" is an appropriate characterization and should give pause, realpolitik or not. I assume the intention of the SSA rules is to terminate the spousal benefit when, at least in theory, the spousal income is replaced by a new spouse. It's clear that a civil union that is "the legal equivalent of marriage" is the legal equivalent of marriage for that purpose too, so people who continue to claim spousal benefits after they have entered into a relationship they consider to be a marriage are thieves, as they are obtaining something under false pretenses.

People who just live together in a committed relationship rather than marry so they can keep getting Social Security are thieves too, by the exact same reasoning.

It is corrupt and corrupting, and unworthy of moral people. There is a persuasive argument to be made that SSA shouldn't force people to choose between marriage and benefits, but those are the rules and I don't see how a ruse fixes the real problem.

sku said...

I agree with you (and my State Supreme Court) that marriage is preferable to civil unions. Actually, I don't think the state should regulate marriage at all, but that's another issue.

However, I think it's a bit hyperbolic to label non-married seniors who collect SS as "thieves."

The Congress made a decision with regard to how it would allocate SS benefits. That decision was based largely on marriage. If there is a loophole that Congress doesn't like, they should fix it (and I wouldn't necesarilly be opposed to such a fix - again, I don't really see the point of tying benefits to the institution of marriage), but I don't think it's appropriate to blame people for doing something advantageous that the law clearly permits.

Our tax law is, of course, filled with such loopholes (intentional and otherwise). Would you characterize people who invest in tax shelters or make other decisions based on tax liablity thieves? If so, nearly everyone who itemizes would fall under that definition and nearly all accountants would be guilty of aiding and abetting.

Chuck Cowdery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chuck Cowdery said...

I'm sympathetic to the counter argument, that if it's legal then there should be no stigma to taking advantage of it. On the other hand, common sense tells us that we really can't have our cake and eat it too.