On equal pay, Republicans are boxed in

April 7
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Tomorrow, President Obama will sign two executive orders concerning fair pay for women. The president can’t unilaterally set rules for every American workplace, but what he can do is set rules for federal contractors, which make up a surprisingly large portion of all American businesses; about a quarter of the American workforce is employed by companies that have at least some federal contracts.

How will Republicans react? Obviously they will not be pleased. But watch carefully: I’m guessing there will be not a peep from Republicans about the actual substance of the executive orders, which are not actually going to wipe out sex discrimination in one fell swoop. Instead, their objections will be all about process.

Like so much the president does, this action has both a substantive purpose and a political purpose. President Obama has what is plainly a sincere desire to see workplace gender discrimination disappear (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first law he signed, and Ledbetter herself will be attending today’s signing). It would also be very helpful for Democrats’ 2014 prospects if women, particularly single women (who voted for President Obama in 2012 by a 36-point margin) got a little extra nudge to get to the polls in November. It’s no accident that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is ramping up a whole campaign around the issue of equal pay.

Let’s understand what these orders do. The first order will bar contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their compensation with each other. This was a factor in Ledbetter’s case — like many victims of pay discrimination, it took her years to discover she was being paid less than her male colleagues, because no one talked about it. And there are many employers who actually bar their employees from discussing their pay. The second order requires contractors to provide data to the government on employee compensation, broken down by sex and race. With those data in hand, the government will be able to see whether employees are being treated equally.

Here’s what conservatives will almost certainly say: This is just one more example of Barack Obama’s disregard for the law and the separation of powers, as he continues his tyrannical misuse of his office. They won’t say that employees shouldn’t be able to discuss their pay with each other, or that contractors shouldn’t have to report their wage data. Because those are awfully difficult arguments to make, and having that discussion would make conservatives look like they’re defending sex discrimination. And that would be just fine with the White House. So they’ll stick to the process arguments.

The truth is that Obama has been in the middle of the pack when it comes to issuing executive orders; to date, he has issued 176. George W. Bush issued 291 in his two terms. Bill Clinton issued 364. Ronald Reagan issued 381. Franklin Roosevelt issued a remarkable 3,522.

A simple totalling of the number of executive orders doesn’t tell the whole story, because some are more consequential than others. For instance, in February, President Obama issued an executive order changing the name of the “National Security Staff” to “National Security Council staff.” That urgent problem solved, he moved on to other business, and there were no calls for impeachment.

Nevertheless, every meaningful executive order this president issues is greeted with laments for our lost liberty. It’s a symptom of something larger, the belief among so many that Barack Obama’s presidency is, to its very core, illegitimate. It isn’t just the crazy emails your uncle gets claiming Obama has issued 923 executive orders. From almost the moment Obama took office, conservatives have been claiming Obama tyranny knew no bounds. Remember how Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann used to go on and on about the Obama “czars,” the allegedly unaccountable characters who controlled things behind the scenes in a horrifying affront to everything the Founders believed about democracy? It turned out that “czars” meant “people who work in the White House.”

But the reaction to these two executive orders may end up being more muted. Republicans know that the “war on women” attack is a stinging one, and they’re not exactly eager to get into a debate about whether sex discrimination is a problem that demands action. Anything that gets young women riled up reduces their chances of a big victory in November. So beyond a few pro-forma complaints about process, they just may decide to let this one go.

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