Paycheck Fairness Act Is Blocked in the Senate

The bid to help close the gender pay gap didn’t advance, but don’t expect this issue to go away.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol April 2, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
April 9, 2014, 7:28 a.m.

As ex­pec­ted, a bill in­ten­ded to close the gender pay gap fell short of the 60 votes needed to ad­vance through Con­gress on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, with a vote of 53-44.

“I want every­one to know, every­one in the Sen­ate and every­one in the United States of Amer­ica, al­though we lost the vote, we re­fuse to lose the battle,” said lead spon­sor Mary­land Demo­crat­ic Sen. Bar­bara Mikul­ski. “We’re go­ing to con­tin­ue the battle.”

All Demo­crats voted for the meas­ure, ex­cept for Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id who switched his vote to no for pro­ced­ur­al reas­ons so that he can bring the bill back up. In­de­pend­ent Sen. An­gus King of Maine, who caucuses with Demo­crats, also voted no.

The Paycheck Fair­ness Act is part of Sen­ate Demo­crats’ elec­tion-year agenda, which in­cludes meas­ures such as a min­im­um-wage in­crease. All day Tues­day, which was Equal Pay Day, Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates and com­mit­tees mes­saged on the bill, and Pres­id­ent Obama signed two ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions re­lat­ing to equal pay.

The Paycheck Fair­ness Act, which failed to garner any Re­pub­lic­an sup­port, would have done a couple of things. For one, it would have made it il­leg­al to re­tali­ate against em­ploy­ees who share or ask for wage data in the course of a com­plaint or in­vest­ig­a­tion — the think­ing be­ing that part of elim­in­at­ing gender pay dis­crim­in­a­tion is in­creas­ing trans­par­ency. The act would have also make em­ploy­ers li­able to civil ac­tion on gender pay dis­crim­in­a­tion mat­ters, and would have dir­ec­ted the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tun­ity Com­mis­sion to col­lect gender and ra­cial wage data from em­ploy­ers.

This same bill came up in 2012, and also failed to ad­vance.

Re­pub­lic­ans have charged that the Paycheck Fair­ness Act is re­dund­ant, say­ing that it’s already against the law to dis­crim­in­ate on the basis of gender. They also be­lieve that the law will lead to an ex­plo­sion of law­suits and that the stat­ist­ic most of­ten noted by Demo­crats — that the av­er­age wo­man makes 77 cents for every dol­lar the av­er­age man makes — is mis­lead­ing and doesn’t take in­to ac­count the dif­fer­ences in back­ground and roles of wo­men in the work­force.

Demo­crats spent all day Tues­day try­ing to paint Re­pub­lic­ans as cal­lous on the ques­tion of pay equity. “This is­sue boils down to a fun­da­ment­al ques­tion: Whose side are you on?” Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id said. “As usu­al, the Re­pub­lic­ans are sid­ing with the rich and not ob­vi­ously be­ing too con­cerned about what’s hap­pen­ing with wo­men in Amer­ica not get­ting paid as much as men for do­ing the ex­act same work.”

But Re­pub­lic­ans said that they do care about pay equity. Sen­at­ors offered a few amend­ments to the bill, in­clud­ing one from Sen. Deb Fisc­her of Neb­raska. Oth­er Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­als, they say, would al­low for great­er flex­ib­il­ity for work­ing wo­men.

“As a wo­man and as one that has two daugh­ters, I’ve al­ways sup­por­ted equal pay for equal work, as have all of us,” said Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, a mem­ber of the House lead­er­ship. “What we’re pro­mot­ing as Re­pub­lic­ans are those policies that are go­ing to em­power wo­men and every­one, give people free­dom and flex­ib­il­ity, jobs, high­er paychecks and the op­por­tun­ity for a bet­ter life.”

The is­sue is already play­ing out in a num­ber of races. Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado told sup­port­ers via email yes­ter­day that his chal­lenger, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Cory Gard­ner, has pre­vi­ously blocked the meas­ure in the House, “choos­ing Wash­ing­ton par­tis­an­ship over fair­ness and op­por­tun­ity for Col­or­ado fam­il­ies.”

To that, the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee ac­cused Ud­all of hy­po­crisy, say­ing that his fe­male staffers on av­er­age earn less than his male staffers.

That dy­nam­ic mir­rors the na­tion­al one; while Demo­crats ac­cuse Re­pub­lic­ans of not back­ing equal pay for equal work, Re­pub­lic­ans shoot back that wo­men work­ing in the Obama White House earn less on av­er­age than men. That is in large part due to the dif­fer­ence in ex­per­i­ence and roles that wo­men hold.

Des­pite the Paycheck Fair­ness Act fail­ing Wed­nes­day, don’t ex­pect this is­sue to fade from the spot­light, Demo­crats say.

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Chuck Schu­mer said Tues­day, “Like un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, we’ll come back, and back, and back.”

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