Not everyone is aware that Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, marking how much extra time women would have to work into 2014 to earn as much as men. It’s an important day for Democratic activists seeking to highlight the discrepancy in wages. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and equal pay for equal work, a slogan that dates back to the early suffragists, is enjoying renewed resonance.
Democrats dusted off their Paycheck Fairness Act for a vote Wednesday, the third attempt for the legislation, which failed in 2010 and 2012. Sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the bill has 52 co-sponsors, all Democrats. Not even Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, often allies on women’s issues, are stepping up on this one.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to couple his criticism of the pay equity bill with his fury at Majority Leader Harry Reid’s attacks on the conservative Koch brothers. All that Democrats are doing, McConnell said, is trying to “blow a few kisses to their powerful pals on the left.” He characterized Reid’s tactics as a “bizarre obsession” and said it’s part of the Democrats’ “never-ending political road show.”
The reaction was instantaneous. The Democratic political committees, Emily’s List, which helps elect pro-choice women, and Democrats across the board jumped on McConnell. With women a key demographic heading into the midterm elections, Democrats are hoping that Republicans who say such things will revive the “war on women” meme that brought women to the polls in the last election. President Obama won reelection on the strength of a strong gender gap, and Democrats need to duplicate those numbers in key Senate races in November.
McConnell’s office maintains that his words about blowing kisses were meant for the Koch brothers and shouldn’t be taken as a slur against women.
“As is crystal clear to anyone who actually read or heard his remarks, Senator McConnell was referring to an ‘attack’ that Senator Reid had made the previous day on two private citizens who disagree with him," McConnell spokesman Brian McGuire said in a statement. “Only someone who believes that Senator Reid was ‘attacking’ pay equity could conclude that Senator McConnell was doing so himself.”
McConnell appeared at a press conference with Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer at his side. One of just four Republican women senators, she is aiming to offer an amendment to the Paycheck Fairness Act that she says will help women combat wage discrimination in the workplace by reinforcing current laws and giving employers more flexibility in setting pay scales.
A survey released Tuesday by the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and Democracy Corps finds that pay equity is a potent issue for Democrats heading into the midterms. In response to the statement “Women succeed with pay equity and equal health insurance,” 65 percent of likely women voters responded favorably; 82 percent of unmarried women were positive; and 76 percent of the Rising American Electorate, young people and minorities, responded favorably. These are the voters who reelected Obama and whom Democrats must inspire to turn out to hold their majority in the Senate.
Republicans are not oblivious to the needs of women voters, and McConnell began his press conference on Tuesday with an argument about how the Obama administration has been bad for women. More women are in poverty, household income is down, and women are suffering in the poor economy, he said, adding, “The Democrats are doing everything they can to change the subject from the nightmare of Obamacare.” He predicted “the sorry state of the economy” and the effects of Obamacare will be the deciding issues in November.
Obama signed two executive orders on Tuesday that mimic what the Paycheck Fairness Act would do in banning employers from punishing workers who discuss their pay with other workers and requiring employers to submit data that break down pay scales along gender and race lines. The executive orders apply only to federal contractors.
Republicans say the legislation before the Senate would encourage more lawsuits and that it is duplicative, as discriminatory hiring based on sex is already illegal.
They also are pushing back on the numbers that Obama and the Democrats are using, saying 77 cents on the dollar is not accurate. At the White House daily briefing, reporters pressed press secretary Jay Carney on that figure. Fox News correspondent Ed Henry likened it to Obama’s much disparaged statement on health care, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” Carney said the 77 percent figure is based on census data, and there are a lot of factors that contribute to the gap.
Republicans took some satisfaction in pointing out that at the White House, women earn 88 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. Carney countered that at least the media knows what everyone at the White House is making and that reporters ought to ask members of Congress about their staffs.
A Pew Research Center survey finds that women earn 84 percent of what men earn and that young women have a much smaller gap, 93 percent. Women fall behind when they take time out to raise children and then return to the workplace at a disadvantage. And women are far more likely to experience multiple “career disruptions” for family reasons.
State by state, the numbers vary as well, with 64 cents for women in Wyoming and 85-90 cents in the Beltway around Washington. “The pay gap between men & women is wider in Louisiana than in all other states except one,” tweeted Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, where the number for women is 67 cents. Calculating gender differences is complicated, but the politics are simple.