President Obama’s hour long State of the Union speech was filled with applause lines and raucous interruptions by lawmakers. But, aside from the emotional, extended ovation for wounded veteran Cory Remsburg, perhaps no other riff in his speech got as much applause (or Twitter traffic) as this section of his address, which led a certain hipster congresswoman to dole out a high-five and also got a bi-partisan standing ovation:
Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds.
Obama has included very similar language in nearly all of his previous State of the Union addresses. Last year in his annual speech, he made an explicit call for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which it didn’t and which brings us back to his well-received refrain from last night, in which he again urged Congress to move forward on the bill.
The bill revises provisions of the Equal Pay act, prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for questions about salary and requires that employers prove that pay disparities are about skill and background, rather than gender. It would also set up a grant program through the Department of Labor that would allow for training women and girls on negotiating skills.
Judging by the reaction in the hall to Obama’s comments and the recent push by GOP leaders to broaden their appeal to women, it might be reasonable to assume that the measure has a good chance of passing.
But that assumption, for now at least, is probably off base.
A bit of history on the bill:
In 2009, the bill passed the Democratic-controlled House — 1o Republicans voted for it, 161 against, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers who delivered the response to Obama’s State of the Union and is part of the GOP’s rebranding efforts with women. The bill was seen as a companion piece to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by the President five years ago today, which made it easier to sue over pay discrimination.
In January of last year, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced, or rather, re-introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act. But, in both chambers, the bills essentially stalled. In 2012, the measure did come up for a vote, but was blocked by Senate Republicans, with a 52 to 47 vote split falling along party lines.
At the time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had this to say about the bill: “We don’t think America suffers from a lack of litigation. We have a jobless problem. We have a debt problem. We have a deficit problem. We got a lot of problems. Not enough lawsuits is not one of them.”
Aides to Sen. Mikulski, who met with Ledbetter Tuesday along with eight other women Senators, said that she is working with Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and pushing to get floor action on the bill in this session. Mikulski has roughly 5o co-sponsors, all Democrats, and one independent.
One possible remedy that liberals are pushing for is an executive action that wouldn’t require Congressional approval. Given that Obama’s new mantra is that he has “a phone and a pen,” Ledbetter, for instance, is calling on Obama to sign a measure that would allow federal contract workers to discuss their pay and possible discrimination without recriminations.
For their part, although Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, cheered Obama last night as he called for an end to the wage gap, see the issue differently. Even as they try to appeal to women, the Republican-controlled House, and likely Senate Republicans are still an obstacle to any movement on the bill, if history is any guide.
Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, which advocates fiscally conservative policies, echoed McConnell’s concern over frivolous lawsuits, but said Republicans need to do a better job with messaging with regard to women’s rights in the workplace.
“I don’t deny that discrimination exists or that there are some bad employers; but I reject the idea that society and the workplace is inherently hostile to women,” she said.
Instead, Schaeffer argues, “Throughout life women and men make different choices – about what college major to select, what line of work to pursue, how much they want to work – and all of this drives earnings far more than discrimination.
“All that being said, women overwhelmingly believe discrimination is at least somewhat of a problem in the workplace. And Republicans and conservatives need to do a better job at communicating what laws already exist to protect against gender discrimination and show how a law like the PFA would benefit trial lawyers, not women.”