Today the Senate will hold a test vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would update The Equal Pay Act of 1963. The President swooped in at the last minute to push for the bill’s passage, or really just to highlight the messaging.
Senators will vote whether to debate the Democratic-sponsored Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would require businesses to show that wage discrepancies between men and women are not based on gender. The measure also bans retaliation against workers who reveal their wages or try to get wage information from their employers.
The bill isn’t expected to reach the 60-vote threshold required for the Senate to proceed. Still, Democrats waged a full-court press for it Monday with President Barack Obama on a conference call – he took no questions – calling the bill urgent in order to aid women and help the nation’s economy.
“If Congress passes the Paycheck Fairness Act, women are going to have access to more tools to claim equal pay for equal work,” Obama said. “If Congress doesn’t act, then women are still going to have difficulty enforcing and pressing for this basic principle.”
In a broad push, the White House, senior White House aides, Democratic senators and liberal interest groups followed with statements declaring the proposal essential to the economic security of women and arguing that a vote against it would be a vote against jobs.
Everyone knows this bill will not reach the 60-vote threshold required for cloture today. Harry Reid acknowledged that in his remarks on the Senate floor today, saying that “This evening, America will see where Republican Senators stand … It’s unfortunate they’ll once again favor obstructionism over equality.” So nobody is walking into this blind. Democrats want to highlight their position on the popular side of an 80/20 issue in favor of pay equity, and the fact that women to this day still make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men in comparable positions (down to 62 cents for African-American women and 54 cents for Hispanic women).
Republicans are generally uninterested in the concept, and they don’t want to be bullied into support at this time. So women will be denied stronger tools to fight wage discrimination as well as better compensation for a successful claim, and would still be subject to retaliation from their employers for organizing against wage discrimination. And Democrats and the President will have another issue for their “war on women” file (the giveaway is the heightened attention to Mitt Romney’s stance on the legislation).
At the root this is a workplace fairness issue, paradoxically one of the only ones Democrats in Congress have brought up in the Obama Presidency. And we know where Republicans stand on them, with the so-called “job creators.”
But I keep going back to the first bill signed by the President, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. As we now know, this bill merely made technical corrections on the statute of limitations on wage discrimination cases, reversing a Supreme Court ruling. It was not designed to really force pay equity at all. Yet for the last three-plus years, we heard how the first bill the President signed made strides toward “equal pay for equal work.” If it did, the Paycheck Fairness Act wouldn’t be necessary. And indeed, the Paycheck Fairness Act was available as an option at the time. It never got a vote in the Democratic-majority Congress until late in 2010, after the 60-vote Senate majority vanished.
Lilly Ledbetter, then, was kind of a fake bill, a public relations special, passed to make it look like something was being done on pay equity, without any of the teeth that would guarantee it. There was no reason why, at the height of the President’s power at the beginning of his Administration, the Paycheck Fairness Act couldn’t have been the initial bill effort, with Lilly Ledbetter language folded into it. Maybe it wouldn’t have passed, though it would be amusing to have watched the Maine twins try to stop it. But at least the attempt would have been made, rather than a PR strategy, that brought us little closer to solving the root problem.