Here’s How Politics Killed Hopes of Equal Pay

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

All good things are worth waiting for, or so the saying goes, but the Paycheck Fairness Act has been so long in the waiting, it’s beginning to seem like a hopeless cause  — and one that’s fast losing its window of opportunity, if it ever had one. On Monday, Republicans in the Senate shot down another measure from the other side of the aisle, making the vote split fifty-two to forty, well below the sixty necessary procedural votes.

At this point in the game, when politicians have been striking out and pitching far too many foul balls, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at what’s going on with the Paycheck Fairness Act and pay equity bills in Congress. Why aren’t they passing? Why are they continuing to march their way onto Congressional desks, but making no headway? What’s next? Let’s take a look.

How many strikes ’til you’re out?

First things first: Just how many times has pay equity flopped in Congress? This latest vote makes the third since spring 2012, but pay equity bills have been put forth and failed for years before that. In 2009 a pay equity bill passed in the House of Representative but then later failed in the Senate in 2010. In April 2011, a bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) but died there, as did a bill in the Senate that same year.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama renewed his emphasis on the issue as he did in 2011, putting forth a memorandum for the Secretary of Labor in April that would require federal contractors and subcontractors to send in data on their compensation with sex and race noted. “While working women have made extraordinary progress over the past five decades since enactment of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, they still earn only 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns,” wrote Obama in the memorandum. He also signed an executive order barring federal contractors from preventing discussion of pay or punishing workers for inquiring about pay, arguing that this makes unfair pay more difficult to discover and prove. However, neither executive action nor the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009) — which took a vital step towards protecting pending discrimination lawsuits — have been a replacement for the bill Congress has failed to pass.

The pay gap concern according to Democrats

So is a pay equity bill worth all of this time, effort, and failure? Democrats would argue that so long as the pay gap remains, efforts to combat this reality are worthwhile and necessary for as long as it takes. And the pay gap certainly does remain, though a September 16 release from the U.S. Census Bureau does report that the 77 cents on the dollar has improved by a single cent to 78 cents on the dollar. Not exactly cause for celebration but an improvement nonetheless — though as Vox pointed out, there is no statistical difference between the 78.3 percent median pay discrepancy and the 76.5 percent pay gap seen in 2012. Those cents and percentages end up adding to a $39,200 yearly income for a female doing the same work as a man who makes $50,000 in annual income. When you look at racial and sex payment disadvantages, the difference is even more striking, black and Latina women making 64 and 54 cents on the dollar respectively.

One in seven women is poor. More than half of all poor children live in families headed by women. Two-thirds of the elderly poor are women,” said Joan Entmacher, vice president of Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center. “Incomes are growing for those at the top, but those at the bottom — mostly women and children — are being left behind. Some in Congress have blocked measures to reduce poverty and improve economic security for women and their families.”

The downside according to Republicans

There’s a reason that pay equity bills are problematic to pass, and while Democrats might paint the matter as Republicans lacking sympathy for women and being out of touch with the struggle of women in the workforce, there is more to the story. Admittedly, Republicans do have a much smaller population of women voters to appeal to, but there’s an actual argument beyond simply “Republicans hate women.”

For one thing, Republicans question whether or not the Paycheck Fairness Act is the best way to go about combating pay discrepancy and if it will disproportionately affect and hurt smaller businesses who are perhaps not the main problem. Some question the data on pay discrepancy, and others argue the legislation would reduce jobs.

At a time when the Obama economy is already hurting women so much, this legislation would double down on job loss, all while lining the pockets of trial lawyers,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) back in April, according to The Huffington Post. “In other words, it’s just another Democratic idea that threatens to hurt the very people that it claims to help.”

Right or wrong, is it just politics?

Considering the lack of success this legislation has seen so far, why do Democrats continue to persue this legislation? For one thing, it’s incredibly important and deserves to be passed; Republicans may have economic concerns, but aiding women in finding equal pay is long overdue and is hardly the straw that will break our economy’s back. Besides, arguing that paying women what they deserve to be making would hurt women because it will hurt everyone is like arguing that you can’t pay your sweat shop workers or you won’t be able to afford to feed them. Let them feed themselves; and find a way to balance the economy without stomping down on vital legislation to women’s rights and equality that could improve the lives of many American families.

On the other hand, Democrats in the Senate would have to be fools to expect the Paycheck Fairness Act to pass right now — and as much as we like to pick on senators, most of them are actually pretty damn bright. So what’s with the hopeless waste of time and energy? Efforts toward passing the act could be better applied in future when the time is ripe and a real window of opportunity has opened up for the legislation. The answer is, predictably (as with everything lately), the midterm elections.

Democrats may be hoping that the GOP voting down equal pay could motivate women voters to get to the polls this election season and give Democrats the push they need to retain a majority in the Senate. They may more generally be looking for an opportunity to suggest — or simply reveal, depending on where you stand — that Republicans have lost touch with women. Either way, the moment for passing this legislation isn’t now, and, if the left loses its majority next fall, it may not come around for some time.

More from Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS