Republicans’ Attack on the White House Proves Obama’s Point

The administration’s transparency means critics can shame them for any gender-related discrepancies in pay. And that’s a good thing.

National Journal
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Lucia Graves
April 14, 2014, 12:03 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans con­tin­ued to ac­cuse the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of hy­po­crisy on Sunday, with Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn, R-Tenn., telling Face the Na­tion that, while Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port equal pay in gen­er­al, the par­tic­u­lar le­gis­lat­ive ef­forts pushed by Demo­crats are “con­des­cend­ing” and in­ef­fec­tu­al.

Black­burn, like many of her GOP col­leagues, spe­cific­ally cited the White House’s own pay gap as evid­ence that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has no busi­ness pro­mot­ing salary trans­par­ency through two new ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders an­nounced last week. “The White House pay­ing wo­men 88 cents for every dol­lar that a guy earns in com­par­able po­s­i­tions?” she said in ref­er­ence to a re­cent study by the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. “They need to go clean up their own act first.”

But the only reas­on Black­burn can cri­ti­cize the White House pay gap is be­cause the White House re­leases its pay in­form­a­tion — something Obama wants every com­pany to do. Black­burn’s cri­tique ac­tu­ally proves Obama’s point: Trans­par­ency can help put pres­sure on in­sti­tu­tions to “clean up their act,” as Black­burn would say. She’s right to cri­ti­cize the White House, but the am­muni­tion she uses is not avail­able for most em­ploy­ers.

Black­burn’s ar­gu­ment also leaves out some im­port­ant nu­ances. Con­trary to her on-air state­ment, the pay dif­fer­en­tial between men and wo­men does not ap­ply to Obama staffers in “com­par­able po­s­i­tions.” She also fails to men­tion that the White House’s re­cord on this front is sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter than that of con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans or the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Still, pun­dits have per­sisted in cast­ing last week’s em­phas­is on the wage gap as a win for the GOP.

Ideas ad­vanced by a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors last week would take an im­port­ant step to­ward end­ing pay dis­crim­in­a­tion (namely, ban­ning re­tali­ation against any em­ploy­ees who dis­close their own salar­ies). But they don’t go as far as the Paycheck Fair­ness Act, which, among oth­er things, would have dir­ec­ted the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tun­ity Com­mis­sion to col­lect em­ploy­ers’ gender and race wage data. That le­gis­la­tion was un­an­im­ously blocked by Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans last week, the same week the House passed Rep. Paul Ry­an’s Re­pub­lic­an budget, which, as The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Dana Mil­bank re­por­ted, would force cuts to in­vest­ments that dis­pro­por­tion­ately be­ne­fit wo­men.

Oth­er pun­dits such as The Post‘s Nia-Ma­lika Hende­r­son ac­cused the White House of “try­ing to carve out a nar­row ar­gu­ment which says more trans­par­ency means less dis­crim­in­a­tion … even though trans­par­ency at the White House still finds a 12 cents pay gap.”

The White House’s re­cord not­with­stand­ing, the ar­gu­ment is not par­tic­u­larly nar­row. A study from the In­sti­tute for Wo­men’s Policy Re­search, for in­stance, finds trans­par­ency is among the best ways to pre­vent pay dis­crim­in­a­tion. “More trans­par­ency al­most al­ways helps in fight­ing sex dis­crim­in­a­tion and oth­er forms of dis­crim­in­a­tion be­cause it ex­poses what the em­ploy­er is do­ing,” Su­z­anne Gold­berg, dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Gender and Sexu­al­ity Law at Columbia Uni­versity, told ABC News at the time.

It is also, as MS­N­BC’s Ir­in Car­mon has noted, likely re­lated to the reas­on the White House pay gap is nar­row­er than the na­tion­al av­er­age.

A nar­row ar­gu­ment would be one that dis­missed good policy by cit­ing an in­sti­tu­tion’s faulty be­ha­vi­or.

Still, Gary Burt­less, an eco­nom­ist at the cent­rist Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, said that even com­plete salary trans­par­ency would be un­likely to solve gender dis­crep­an­cies in pay. The salar­ies of con­gres­sion­al staffers are pos­ted on­line, he noted in a con­ver­sa­tion with Na­tion­al Journ­al, and still sig­ni­fic­ant gender wage gaps per­sist.

Mari­anne DelPo Ku­low, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of law at Bent­ley Uni­versity whose work on the is­sue has been pub­lished in the Har­vard Journ­al on Le­gis­la­tion, agreed. “The more nu­anced con­ver­sa­tion is why is there still a gap even in the face of wage trans­par­ency and the an­swer to this is that there are a num­ber of factors con­trib­ut­ing to the gap, not just wage secrecy,” she wrote in a state­ment. “To erad­ic­ate the gap en­tirely, one needs a multi-pronged ap­proach.”

Ad­voc­ates of equal pay would say the White House is ab­so­lutely not above re­proach on this is­sue, that they need to do bet­ter. And if crit­ics, in­clud­ing Black­burn and her col­leagues, keep up the pres­sure by pro­mot­ing trans­par­ency le­gis­la­tion or at least the sham­ing it en­ables, they will. More im­port­antly, so will every­one else.