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What Obama Should Have Said in the Debate About Pay Equity | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

What Obama Should Have Said in the Debate About Pay Equity

President Obama was handed a gift in Tuesday night’s debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, but he failed to take full advantage of it. A woman in the audience named Katherine Fenton asked Obama, “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” Obama could have talked about legislation in Congress to address just this issue, which he supports and Romney does not. But he didn’t.

Obama noted that he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and then he went on a tangent about how he improved college affordability by increasing Pell Grants. “We’ve got to make sure that young people like yourself are able to afford a college education,” Obama told Fenton. That’s correct, but it’s totally irrelevant. There are more women attending college than men. The problem is not that women are being disproportionately kept out of college due to lack of funds and therefore not getting jobs. It is that once they get jobs, they are paid less than men.

Romney bragged that he practiced affirmative action—although of course he did not call it that—in staffing his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts. He also noted that he accommodated women workers who needed flexible hours to juggle their work and family responsibilities. That’s nice, but it’s even more irrelevant than what Obama said. Practicing personal affirmative action or accommodating female employees is insignificant compared to the policies that as president you may impose on the rest of the country. That’s clearly what Fenton was asking about, and Romney gave her no answer at all. Will Romney require businesses to do anything to recruit qualified women or accommodate their needs? No. He just says the economy will grow so dramatically under him that it will happen automatically because everyone will be competing to hire and retain the best workers.

Initially, Obama did not even discuss Romney’s contorted position on the Ledbetter law. On the second go-round, Obama noted that when Romney’s campaign was asked by Sam Stein of the Huffington Post if Romney supported Ledbetter he was met with silence and told, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.” Obama then brought up other women’s issues, primarily pertaining to healthcare, on which he and Romney differ.

But Obama did not contest Romney’s false assertion in the debate that he supports the law. In fact, while Romney did eventually say he would not repeal it, he still refuses to say whether he would have signed it in the first place.

Obama completely failed to discuss the other ways in which Romney opposes pay equity. There is currently a Democratic bill in Congress, which Obama supports, called the Paycheck Fairness Act. It is much stronger than Ledbetter, which merely repealed the Supreme Court’s unreasonable ruling that a woman must bring a pay discrimination lawsuit within six months of her first paycheck, rather than within six months of discovering the disparity.

According to the Huffington Post, the Paycheck Fairness Act would have, “required employers to demonstrate that any salary differences between men and women doing the same work are not gender-related. The bill also would have prohibited employers from retaliating against employees who share salary information with their co-workers, and would have required the Labor Department to increase its outreach to employers to help eliminate pay disparities.” All forty-seven Senate Republicans voted to filibuster it in June. Romney has not taken a position on Paycheck Fairness. His campaign has not responded to any media queries as to whether he would sign it into law. Given that his entire party opposes it, the safest assumption is that Romney does as well. If nothing else, a Romney victory would have down ticket effects that would create too Republican a Congress to pass the bill. This would have been an excellent opportunity for Obama to ask Romney if he supports it and finally get an answer.

When discussing Ledbetter, Obama mentioned that the law was necessitated by a Supreme Court ruling. That would have been a good opportunity for him to discuss a subject that did not come up in the debate but that has major implications for pay equity: the composition of the federal courts. Democratic appointees to federal district and appeals courts, as well as the Supreme Court, favor civil rights. Republican judicial appointees oppose civil rights. A Republican presidency thus has adverse implications for anyone seeking protection from discrimination in the workplace, including racial, ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, and women.

Finally, Obama neglected to point out that gender discrimination in the workplace is not just a question of men and women. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people also face discrimination on the basis of their gender identity. Democrats in Congress have proposed, and Obama has pledged to sign, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, to make such discrimination illegal. Romney was for such legislation when he ran for US Senate in 1994, against it in 2008, and has refused to take a stance this time. Polls show large majorities support ENDA, and Obama should have tried to get Romney on the record on that as well.

Social issues such as workplace discrimination put Romney in a very tough position. On the one hand he is trying to reinvent himself, yet again, for the benefit of socially moderate swing voters. On the other hand, he has to retain his support among social conservatives and business interests that oppose ENDA and Paycheck Fairness. Obama should exploit this tension and force Romney to stand against bigotry, or with America’s shrinking number of bigots. 

In case you missed it, Romney also claimed he supported access to contraceptives for every woman in America. Check out more of "Romney's Seven Biggest Debate Lies."

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