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5 Takeaways From The Equal Pay Debate

President Obama, pictured here with Lilly Ledbetter, and congressional Democrats are working the equal pay issue hard in a midterm election year when they will need as many women to vote as possible.
Carolyn Kaster
President Obama, pictured here with Lilly Ledbetter, and congressional Democrats are working the equal pay issue hard in a midterm election year when they will need as many women to vote as possible.

This was the week that included Equal Pay Day, the point on the 2014 calendar to which the average female worker must work to match the average man's 2013 pay.

To mark the occasion, President Obama held a White House event Tuesday to sign executive orders aimed at providing more transparency about what federal contractors pay their workers. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats held a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which failed in a vote that largely fell along partisan lines — the third time that's happened.

After a week of Democratic charges and Republican countercharges concerning who cares most about women, here's what we learned:

  • Republicans found what seemed to be an effective response to Democrats on the equal pay issue: Senate Republicans had their female members take the lead in offering alternatives to Democratic proposals. One of those women, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, offered what she said would be a more effective legislative solution than the Democrats' Paycheck Fairness Act. While neither side's legislation went anywhere, the move allowed Republicans to provide at least some insulation against charges that the party doesn't care about women making less than men for doing the same work.
  • Democrats need to better anticipate Republican counterattacks. When the American Enterprise Institute issued an analysis of White House pay that found that women on the White House staff earned 88 percent of men's earnings, it appeared to catch the White House flat-footed. Ditto when Senate Republicans issued a similar analysis for Senate Democrats in very competitive races this year. White House press secretary Jay Carney responded that at least the White House was doing better on that measure than "the public at large" — since President Obama has said women generally earn 77 percent of what men do. That answer immediately struck many ears as tone-deaf, and a bit hypocritical.
  • And about that 77 percent — President Obama is not backing off that figure. Experts and fact checkers have pointed out, to no avail, that the number is just one way of describing the gap, and not necessarily the most accurate. By other valid measures, such as the wage gap, it is significantly narrower. But White House officials are making a political case to voters, not a statistical one to economists. So despite the criticisms, they continue to use the most dramatic data.
  • The paycheck equality issue might have boomeranged a bit on Democrats, but at least they got the video — and Republican "no" votes — they sought for their midterm campaign ads. As Democrats try to boost turnout, especially among single female voters, they're intent on drawing a contrast this year on women's issues. In ads, expect to see Lilly Ledbetter — the Rosa Parks of pay equity, who was there when Obama signed two executive orders on Equal Pay Day.
  • We haven't heard the last about the equal pay issue on Capitol Hill this year. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, author of the Democrats' bill, said the issue wasn't over, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated he was open to pressing the issue again. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans indicated they also expected that the issue wasn't going away this election year. So expect more competing photo ops on the issue with Democratic and Republican women at the fore.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.