WASHINGTON — The incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee wants lawmakers to vote on a measure ensuring transgender individuals can enlist and serve in the military, but he’s also pessimistic about its chances of success.
“I would like to pass legislation like we did when we got rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who currently serves as ranking member on the defense oversight panel. “We made it clear that gay people could serve openly. I think we should pass the same thing for transgender.”
“But I’m realistic about our ability to do that, so I think it does play out in the courts at this point.”
Representatives of President Donald Trump’s administration were back in federal court this week on the issue of restricting transgender individuals from serving in the military, arguing that lower court rulings blocking his proposed ban unfairly limited his executive power.
Opponents of Trump policy — including numerous Democrats on Capitol Hill — have argued it’s an issue of basic fairness, after former President Barack Obama paved the way for open service by transgender individuals for the first time.
Smith, who will take over the House’s defense committee when the new Congress begins in January, said the transgender debate will be one of several “equality” issues taken up by his members in coming months. He characterized the debate as one not just about fairness, but also military readiness.
“We don’t want to discriminate against people based on sexual preference, race, gender, religion,” he told reporters at a roundtable event with defense reporters on Wednesday.
“We do discriminate against people based on their capability. You have to be able to meet the standards that are necessary to do the job you are being asked to do. But we’re not going to say no gay people, no transgender people, no Muslims.”
As Democrats take control of the House chamber next month, those kinds of discrimination and equality topics are expected to be at the forefront of a host of chamber work, beyond the armed services committee.
But Senate leadership — which remains in Republican hands — thus far have expressed no interest in defying the president on the transgender issue.
Outside rights groups have estimated that as many as 15,000 transgender individuals are already serving in the ranks, but critics have questioned the validity of that number.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.