For years, Republicans have been perceived as behind the times when it comes to equal pay. Now one GOP lawmaker is hoping to change that, even though she believes the issue is greatly exaggerated by her friends on the left.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) is presenting a pair of bills Thursday that tackle topics that have long been in her Democratic counterparts' wheelhouse: Equal pay and paid leave.
"I think it’s an issue that — to be honest — that we as a party have not taken a high profile on," Fischer told Politico Thursday about equal pay. "Everybody supports equal pay, and sometimes [Republicans] don’t do a good job of messaging and of showing people and coming up with new ideas."
Conservatives don't harp on the issue often because, by and large, it's an exaggerated controversy. In 2012, when then-President Barack Obama was discussing pay inequity frequently, the Washington Post corrected him on the notion that there is a wide chasm between the earnings of men and women.
The former president claimed that women make 77 cents for every dollar men earn, echoing a claim made by many Democrats. However, the Post cast doubt on that assertion, reporting that "broad comparisons are inherently problematic."
The 77 cents figure comes from a 2011 Census Bureau report and is based on annual wages, which is quite a wide metric and does not account for variances, as the Post notes:
Annual wages is a broader measure — it can include bonuses, retirement pensions, investment income and the like — but it also means that school teachers, who may not work over the summer, would end up with a lower annual wage.
In other words, since women in general work fewer hours than men in a year, the statistics may be less reliable for examining the key focus of the legislation — wage discrimination.
And when Obama made the pay-gap claim again during his State of the Union address in 2013, the Post — once again — debunked it. "There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women ... make it difficult to make simple comparisons," fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote at the time.
A relatively small pay gap does exist, but there are myriad factors to consider as to why it does.
In addition to the fact that women often choose career fields that are less lucrative, men tend to work more hours, which is often the result of lifestyle choices. According to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, married women with a spouse present earned 78.1 percent of what men earned weekly. However, women who have never been married earned 91.2 percent of what their male counterparts earned weekly.
A PolitiFact check of the 77-cent claim found that, when comparing men and women not across the board, but in the same professions, the wage gap shrinks substantially. Furthermore, 2008 Census data shows "single, childless women in their 20s now earn 8 percent more on average than their male counterparts in metropolitan areas," U.S. News reported.
Women are also more interested in trading extra salary for more workplace flexibility, research from the Independent Women's Forum shows — a reality that is often not taken into account during wage-gap discussions.
Fischer's equal pay proposal revises federal law to make clear that women cannot be punished at the workplace for sharing salary information. The bill would block employers from having secrecy clauses in their nondisclosure agreements.
However, as NPR notes, such proposals are largely symbolic and redundant because the National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935, makes clear that private-sector workers have the right to engage in "concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."
Cynthia Estlund, a law professor at New York University, told NPR that the National Labor Relations Board "has long held that these pay secrecy policies that many employers have in writing violate the National Labor Relations Act." Bills like Fischer's just reinforce that notion and subject employers to legal ramifications.
Fischer presented a similar equal pay bill when Democrats put forward their so-called Paycheck Fairness Act in 2014, which "makes employers who violate sex discrimination prohibitions liable in a civil action," but it never really made it anywhere because Democrats didn't think it covered enough and most Republicans weren't on board in the first place. Fischer said this week that public opinion has shifted regarding equal pay and urged Congress to come together instead of using the issue as a "soundbite" for political gain.
"Everyone believes in equal pay for equal work. Everyone believes in that. That is current law," she said. "We want to see the current law upheld, and to try to make this into a war on women, I just think it’s a soundbite that I believe most women are starting to realize is overused."
But, again, much of the pay controversy stems from a lack of information. As Mark Perry, a scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, notes: "Lower earnings don’t necessarily result from labor market discrimination, they more likely result from personal family choices about careers, workplace flexibility, child care and hours worked, etc."
Nevertheless, Fischer said she believes her proposals might fare better with conservatives under the new White House administration, after President Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, advocated for equal pay and paid leave on the campaign trail. "He will fight for equal pay for equal work," she said last year during the Republican National Convention.
For a party that has long contested Democratic assertions that women face wage discrimination, Ivanka Trump's words were not a comfortable fit for conservatives. Amanda Carpenter, the former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), said Ivanka Trump was proposing "Democrat policies" at the convention.
And several prominent conservative voices slammed the president's eldest daughter's comments.
In 2016, a group of female Republican lawmakers, including House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Fischer, hosted a discussion with Ivanka Trump about issues women face in the workplace, such as childcare needs and the wage gap.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who was in the meeting, told Roll Call the conversation was "informative," adding: "In my district, especially with suburban moms, it has been very well-received."
According to CNN, the White House is hoping to push childcare reform through a broader tax reform package in Congress. The proposal, led by Ivanka Trump, includes a childcare tax credit and six weeks of paid maternity leave, bringing with it an estimated $300 billion price tag.
The Trump team is hoping to fund the childcare portion of the proposal by pooling resources from other programs and through tax reforms. However, the six-weeks paid maternity leave, which would be propped up through a federal order mandating employers provide the benefit, according to Politico, is likely to meet opposition from Republicans, who generally favor less government intervention.
Here's how the childcare proposal, which comes in the form of tax breaks, would work and who it would benefit, according to CNBC:
For a family earning $70,000 annually in Trump's proposed 12 percent tax bracket, with $7,000 in child-care expenses, the deduction would reduce taxes by $840 per year, his campaign estimated.
The deduction would be capped at the average cost of care for the state of residence. People earning more than $250,000 (or $500,000 for married couples filing jointly) would not be eligible.
The plan would also offer rebates to lower-income taxpayers through the existing Earned Income Tax Credit. The Trump campaign estimated a low-income family could save almost $1,200 per year.
On the issue of paid leave, Fischer has a different approach. She is presenting the Strong Families Act, which would enact a two-year tax credit for business leaders who voluntarily give their employees at least two weeks paid leave. This measure is supported by Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, Politico reported.
It's unclear whether Fischer would support Ivanka Trump's proposals or be open to incorporating them into her own legislation.
Democrats, though, oppose Fischer's equal pay proposal, arguing for a more robust bill — like the Paycheck Fairness Act — that gives women a clear legal route to fight pay gaps in court.