Much has been made in recent years of the gender-based wage gap, with the oft-cited number from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that full-time female workers make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. (Although some studies have indicated that the gap is negligible or virtually nonexistent after controlling for certain variables.) The main bill in this Congress to close the gap is the Paycheck Fairness Act, S. 862 and H.R. 1619, introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the Senate and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT3) in the House.
This bill contains several proposed changes to federal law. It would amend the Equal Pay Act of 1963, currently the primary law governing this issue, to limit when employers can pay differently to “bona fide factors, such as education, training, or experience.” It would require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to collect data on compensation, hiring, termination, and promotion sorted by sex.
It would also prevent employers from retaliating against employees for inquiring about or disclosing wage information at a company — perhaps the main method employees have of discovering such a gap in the first place. And it would “make employers who violate sex discrimination prohibitions liable in a civil action for damages.”
What supporters say
Virtually every congressional Democrat has signed on has a co-sponsor.
Mikulski said, ““Equal pay is not just for our pocketbooks, it’s about family checkbooks and getting it right in the law books. The Paycheck Fairness Act ensures that women will no longer be fighting on their own for equal pay for equal work.” President Obama has also endorsed the legislation, saying “When women succeed here in America then the whole country succeeds… I’ve got two daughters, I expect them to be treated the same as somebody’s sons who are on the job.”
What opponents say
However, not everybody agrees. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA5), the highest-ranking woman in Republican leadership, said “Many ladies I know feel like they are being used as pawns and find it condescending that Democrats are trying to use this issue as a political distraction from the failures of their economic policies.” In fact, notably, not even a single Republican woman has signed on or signaled her support.
The bill faces a steep uphill climb in the Republican-controlled Congress. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI1) has voted against the House version multiple times. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has accused the legislation of being a “‘messaging bill… These are bills designed intentionally to fail so that Democrats can make campaign ads about them failing.” He also mocked the bills as being introduced by Democrats to “blow a few kisses to their powerful pals on the left” and that its main goal was so “The Democrats are doing everything they can to change the subject from the nightmare of Obamacare.” Republicans also warn that the bills would increase lawsuits, which in turn would raise the cost of doing business in America.
One Republican supporter
Only one Republican in either chamber has cosponsored the bill: Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ4). Smith was one of only three Republicans to vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation President Obama signed during his presidency in 2009, which extended the length of time women had to file wage discrimination lawsuits. The other two Republicans who voted in favor are both still serving — Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY1) and Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ7) — but neither have signed on as a co-sponsor to this bill.
What to expect
Both the House and Senate version have not received consideration since being introduced in March 2015 to their respective committees: Education and the Workforce Committee in the House; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate.
The bill (or a close variation of it) has been introduced in every Congress since 1997, with current Democratic presidential candidate and former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) the lead sponsor of its 2005–06 and 2007–08 incarnations. The closest it came to enactment was passage by the then-Democratic House in 2009, but although the Senate voted in favor with 58 votes, that wasn’t enough to overcome the 60-vote barrier needed to dispel a filibuster.