GOP Senators Reject Paycheck Fairness Even As Their Personal Wealth Rises

Jodi Jacobson

Did the personal portfolios of individual Senators and the interests of companies who pay to elect them play a role in defeating the Paycheck Fairness Act? 

Yesterday during a roll call vote, each and every Senate Democrat–with the exception of Senator Ben Nelson (D-ND)–rose to vote in favor of cloture (closing debate in advance of a vote) and of holding a vote on passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

And every single Republican Senator rose to vote against.  Because of a 60-vote requirement, the Senate failed to invoke cloture and the Paycheck Fairness Act failed.

But don’t worry.  It was no sweat off the backs of GOP Senators, many of whom are multimillionaires, and who work in an institution in which everyone knows what everyone else makes, and there is no gender gap in pay.

In the Senate, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who sits on the Senate Finance, Intelligence, Commerce, and Small Business committees gets paid the same amount as Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Max Baucus (D-MT), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Tom Coburn (R-OK) and every other currently serving Senator, no matter on which committee(s) they sit, or how important their committee currently is in relation to a given set of national issues.

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Each of these Senators makes $173,000 per year, unless they are in leadership, in which case they make $193,000 per year, assuming additional responsibilities. That doesn’t include full health care benefits or other perks of office.

They all have pay equity. They get paid the same amount for roughly equal work and because transparency is assured, they know why and when someone gets paid more. Though this may be different in some ways than merit-based pay scales in many situations, the principles are the same: equity, fairness, transparency.

Moreover, for many Senators, their otherwise quite substantial government paycheck is, quite literally, chump change.

A new study by the Center for Responsive Politics of federal financial disclosures released earlier this year shows that despite the persistently bad economy, the collective personal wealth of congressional members increased by more than 16 percent between 2008 and 2009. 

Nearly half — 261 out of 535 members of Congress — are millionaires, a slight increase from the previous year, the Center’s study finds.  Compare this share–nearly half–to the share of the total population–roughly one percent–of Americans who lay claim to the same “lofty fiscal status.” And “of these congressional millionaires,” notes the Center, “55 have an average calculated wealth in 2009 of $10 million or more, with eight in the $100 million-plus range.”

“Few federal lawmakers must grapple with the financial ills — unemployment, loss of housing, wiped out savings — that have befallen millions of Americans,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics’ executive director. “Congressional representatives on balance rank among the wealthiest of wealthy Americans and boast financial portfolios that are all but unattainable for most of their constituents.”

In 2009, the median wealth of a U.S. House member stood at $765,010, up from $645,503 in 2008.

The median wealth of a U.S. senator was nearly $2.38 million, up from $2.27 million in 2008.

What is the median net worth of the average US family?  Less than $48,000.

Wealth is lower and poverty higher among working women than among working men.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2007, women still earned only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gap that has been reduced by a mere 19 cents in the nearly 50 years since 1963, when the wage gap based on sex was 59 cents on the dollar.

Moreover, according to the Census, Bureau:

Most women of color experience even more severe inequities: African-American women earned only 68.7 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2005, Hispanic women earned only 59 cents, and Asian American women earned 89.5 cents.

This gap in earnings translates into $10,622 less per year (on average since this varies by state) in female median earnings, leaving women and their families shortchanged.

The gender gap in wages has huge economic implications, especially today, with a weak economy, record unemployment, stagnating or declining wages, and a growing number of families dependent on the wages brought home by a woman, whose roles as mother and perhaps wife, partner, or caregiver to elderly relatives are no less diminished by the fact that she is also, increasingly, the sole or critical income earner in her family.  For things like the rent or the mortgage, groceries, health care, transportation, and clothing.  Recent census data revealed that an increasing share of American families are single-female headed households and that an increasing share of these households are living in poverty.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was introduced last year in both the House (H.R. 12) and the Senate (S. 182) and passed by the House thanks to the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was intended to address discriminatory pay practices that create and exacerbate these persistent gaps and increase poverty among women. The Act builds upon the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women who perform substantially equal work. 

Among other things, the Paycheck Fairness Act was intended to:

  • allow victims of wage discrimination based on gender to receive full compensatory and punitive damages, as opposed to only liquidated damages and back pay awards, putting gender-based wage discrimination on equal footing with discrimination based on race and ethnicity;
  • make it easier for parties that have been discriminated against to work together through a class action suit by automatically considering members part of the class unless they choose to opt out, in keeping with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and close loopholes in how discrimination is counted by clarifying that a gender differential in pay within a company need not be within the same facility to count as discrimination; and
  • facilitate detection of pay discrimination by prohibiting punishment of employees who share salary information with coworkers, by requiring employers to submit pay data by race, sex, and national origin to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and by reinstating collection of gender-based data in the Current Employment Statistics Survey.

The urgent need to close the gender gap in wages apparently did not phase members of the Senate GOP, or Mr. Nelson, who is another story altogether.  Even Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) (all of whom voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Act) and the one female GOP Senator who voted against the Ledbetter Act, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) all voted yesterday against the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the personal wealth and political power of members of Congress is so deeply entwined with the companies whose practices are the source of the gender wage gap.

[T]he most popular investment among congressional members reads as a who’s who list of the most powerful corporate political forces in Washington, D.C. — companies that each spend millions, if not tens of millions of dollars each year lobbying federal officials. Many of them likewise donate millions of dollars to federal candidates each election cycle through their top employees and political action committees.

After all, 82 current members of Congress invested are invested in General Electric, 63 in Bank of America, 61 in Cisco Systems, 61 in Proctor & Gamble and 54 Microsoft, just to name a few of those for which data are provided by CRP, included among which also are BP, Apple, Coca Cola, Pepsi and others.

When your personal investments and your campaign war chest is dependent on the same corporate hand feeding both, you might not want to force those companies to have to do anything like paying their female employees a fair and equitable wage.  That might be “bad” for some one’s business.

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