The Senate is set to vote — again — on the Paycheck Fairness Act, and like almost every bill that touches on the economy and includes a dash of affinity politics, it will likely face a brick wall in the House. And its fate in the Senate is not entirely clear either. The bill, sponsored by Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), has 52 co-sponsors, which is not enough to avoid a filibuster. So, when it comes up on the floor, tentatively on Wednesday, all expectations are that history will repeat itself, and the bill will fail to move forward. Still, among Democrats, hope springs eternal.
On Tuesday, which is Equal Pay Day, two things will happen: Tuesday morning, Obama will sign executive orders that will essentially be a mini-Paycheck Fairness Act for federal contractors and make a speech urging Congress to pass the equal pay bill. Then, in the afternoon, at least eight Democratic women and other Senators will take to the floor to deliver speeches in the afternoon, and they will likely be armed with charts and graphs and stories about women who have been paid less than men for similar jobs. This one-two punch is designed to give the bill some momentum and some press coverage going into Wednesday, setting the table for Democrat’s midterm message.
What would this bill actually do?
Like so many bills before Congress, this is an amendment to a prior bill. Back in 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, then amended it in 1963 with the Equal Pay Act. This bill would make it illegal for employers to retaliate against a worker who inquires about or discloses their wages or the wages of another employee in a complaint or investigation. It also makes employers liable to civil actions. And as part of this bill, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would be required to collect pay information from employers. The problem it seeks to address, Democrats say, is a wage gap that finds women making 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. It’s part of their “give America a raise,” populist plank that worked well for Obama in 2012.
What do Republicans think of this bill?
Not much. The bill has no Republican co-sponsors, and they blocked it from going forward when it came up for a vote in 2012. Republican women, perhaps a natural place to look for support, voted with their party. Senators Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Act in 2009, were no votes in 2012.
The GOP, which released a memo Monday, cites increased lawsuits as a possible result of the legislation. Republicans also say discrimination based on sex is already illegal, so this bill is just piling on. Some conservatives and Republicans have also been questioning how big the pay gap actually is. Although the Democrats use the 77 cents on the dollar figure, other studies suggest it’s closer to 84 cents, depending on how you slice the numbers and account for life choices. (It’s hard to find a study that finds no pay disparity in what men and women make).
Those numbers and studies are sort of in the weeds and probably a better comeback that you will hear from the GOP is this: The White House seems to have its own paycheck disparity problem. According to a report by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, women in the White House make less than men — 88 cents on the dollar. White House press secretary said that rate is better than the national average and that women and men in the same jobs make the same salary. The disparity is likely due to the fact that more men than women hold senior level positions in the White House.
Why is this coming up now?
It’s no coincidence that this bill came up in 2010 and in 2012, both election years. But there is a particular cultural moment right now as well. Women’s roles in the workplace and whether they are treated fairly is a hot topic, thanks to Facebook COO and billionaire Sheryl Sandberg. Coupled with that, there has been a huge a social and economic shift that finds 40 percent of households with a woman as the primary breadwinner. Add to that, the politics of it all — the race for the women’s vote has animated both parties, with Democrats trying to maintain their edge and Republicans seeking to broaden their tent.
Could it matter in certain 2014 races?
First, take a look at this map. Each state has a different pay gap. Click on a state and the pay gap comes up. The lighter the state, the bigger the pay gap. Wyoming leads (or lags) with women making 64 cents to every dollar men earn. In the Beltway, women earn 85 cents to 90 cents on the dollar. But take a look at Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu is running a tight race, where the Affordable Care Act is the main issue.
The gap there is 67 cents to every dollar. Which is why Landrieu’s twitter account is filled with posts that tout her support of the bill.
In prior cycles, Republican men tripped up on issues like abortion, rape and contraception, gaffes that were especially harmful in match-ups against women. Those missteps helped the Democrat’s “war on women” rhetoric stick in the minds of voters. And Republicans have struggled with how to answer it effectively, but have started to have more women out front as surrogates. The Republican National Committee memo released on Monday has three women listed and firmly states: All Republicans support equal pay for equal work. But Democrats surely hope that equal pay could be one of those issues where a Republican man ends up saying something offensive, sexist, or just plain weird (binders full of women anyone?). So pay close attention to Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina and New Hampshire for how this plays out on the stump, no matter what happens on The Hill.