Paycheck Fairness Dies in the Senate

Paycheck Fairness Dies in the Senate

Republicans block equal pay legislation—for this Congress, and for many to come.


Women fell two votes short on Wednesday to coming closer to getting paid the same as men for the same work. Senate Republicans decided that equal pay for women should not even be considered, as they blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act from moving to the floor.

The bill, which will not be brought up again in this Congress, faces more of an uphill battle in the next one, with Republicans gaining control of the House and more seats in the Senate.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would have updated the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by closing loopholes, strengthening incentives to prevent pay discrimination and prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages, according to the American Association of University Women, which has been pushing for its passage for ten years. It also would have required employers to show that wage gaps are a result of factors other than gender, to collect better data on wages and develop training for women on salary negotiations.

The House had passed the bill in January 2009 and President Obama had pledged to sign it.

On Wednesday, "a cloture on the motion to proceed," which means a vote to put the bill on the floor for debate, fell two votes short of the required sixty votes. The vote was fifty-eight "yes," forty-one "no" and one, Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, in her home state and not voting. All Republicans voted "no," along with Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the lone dissenting Democrat.

The vote was decried by AAUW, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Women’s Law Center and other civic and labor organizations that had been pushing for passage.

The AAUW noted that Republicans defeated the proposal, despite "widespread support from the White House and ordinary Americans committed to basic fairness and equality."

"This was a missed opportunity to make history and jump-start real economic change for American women and their families," said AAUW Executive Director Linda D. Hallman. "While the Senate’s action is difficult to comprehend given the stark reality that most families depend on the paychecks of women, our effort to close the pay gap is far from over."

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said that due to a procedural issue, the matter would not have proceeded to the floor for a vote anyway.

Regan Lachapelle, a spokesperson for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, disagreed, saying if the cloture motion for Paycheck Fairness had passed, it would have moved to the floor.

When asked about the general Republican opposition to the bill, Stewart said, "There was a range of concerns about there not being time for debate or amendments and about potential litigation."

Opponents, including Republicans and the US Chamber of Commerce, have said in the past that they’re concerned the bill would lead to more employees filing suits, which would be costly for employers to have to fight.

That argument has been used in every civil rights issue regarding discrimination, said Deborah Vagins, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, part of the coalition pushing for passage. Passing Paycheck Fairness in the new Congress will be "difficult, but not impossible," Vagins said. "There has been other civil rights legislation to fight discrimination that business has supported. This bill really has nothing for businesses to worry about, especially if they’re already complying with the Equal Pay Act." Paycheck Fairness, she explained, is for women working for employers who aren’t in compliance.

According to AAUW, on average, women still make only seventy-seven cents for every dollar men earn. By some estimates women could lose between $500,000 and $1 million over a forty-year career. In higher-paying fields, such as law, the wage gap can result in even greater lifetime losses. AAUW said in a statement that their report, Behind the Pay Gap, controlled for factors known to affect earnings such as education and training, parenthood, and hours worked and found that college-educated women still earn less than men—despite the same major and occupation as their male counterparts.

Lisa Maatz, AAUW director of public policy and government relations, said, "What’s especially frustrating is that this critical bill became a victim of arcane Senate rules. This de facto filibuster of fair pay by Senate Republicans ensured that we never got to a debate on the bill’s merits. Strategically, I can’t blame them—they can’t win a fair fight against pay equity.

"If we had just a few more senators voting with the courage of their convictions, we’d be debating this bill rather than writing its epitaph for the 111th Congress," Maatz continued. "While we are deeply troubled by the vote, we know that we’ll eventually win this fight."

The AAUW has always emphasized that Paycheck Fairness is a crucial companion bill to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Obama signed on Jan. 19, 2009. It was the first law he signed after he was sworn in.

Ledbetter herself, in comments shortly after the law was passed, said it does little good without the Paycheck Fairness Act. "Giving women the Ledbetter Act without Paycheck Fairness is like giving them the nail without the hammer," Ledbetter had said.

That’s because the Ledbetter Act only gives women more time to file discrimination suits, undoing a Supreme Court decision that had mandated that such suits be filed within 180 days of when they were first paid less.

Now women are left wondering what to do with a nail and no hammer. Lachapelle says Senate Democrats want to reintroduce the bill in the new Congress, hoping there will be a stronger bipartisan effort to help women achieve fair pay.

But Democrats couldn’t even convince all of their own, with Nelson voting no. What would passage have meant for Democrats who are, based on the midterm election results, clearly losing women voters?

"We think this was an important piece of legislation for equal pay for women," Lachapelle said. "This should not have been a partisan issue. It wasn’t us who blocked this. It was the Republicans who said no. We’re hoping in the new Congress they will work with us on this, instead of just saying no."

Vagins noted that any senator voting for pay equity would draw votes.

"Pay equity brings women to the polls," she said. "I hope in the future that message will get across and that there will be more of a bipartisan effort to pass this."

Vagins noted that a recent poll showed that 84 percent of Americans, across party lines, support pay equity, and that there was a strong grassroots effort lobbying for passage.

"The more grassroots effort you can generate the better," she said. "That’s our challenge, to generate enough public pressure."

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