An Honesty Gap in the Pay Gap Debate | Commentary

Posted April 23, 2014 at 4:00am

President Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have begun rallying this month to a long-suffering legislative solution to gender pay inequities, cocksure that Republican opposition to the measure will weaken the ascendant rabble-rousers ahead of the November midterms.

The predictable campaign season blitz for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which House Democrats first passed in July 2008 but failed to clear both chambers in the six years since, hinges on just one number: 77, the persistent claim that women earn nearly a quarter less than men.

Yet outside of the philosophical exhortations about the profound wrongness that women, on average, earn less than men, the workplace practices of some of the legislation’s most vocal supporters are themselves at odds with the promise of equal pay.

Consider deep red Georgia, where the Democratic imperative to peel disaffected conservative women in the contest to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss may singularly determine control of the upper chamber next year.

Here, two champions of the pay equity bill preach the immorality of wage disparities even as they pay their female aides thousands less, on average, annually than men.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who last week released a lengthy statement couching his support of the pay gap bill in decidedly moral terms, paid his female staffers on average $8,221 less than men last year, according to data from the congressional salary database maintained by the nonpartisan LegiStorm.

But he’s not alone in apparently perpetuating Mad Men-style workplace practices, as the president blindly accuses of businesses.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., dean of the Peach State’s congressional delegation and one of the earliest co-sponsors in 2007 of Paycheck Fairness Act, paid his male staffers on average $5,799 more than women in the previous year, the same analysis revealed.

Naturally, this pay gap is result of gross sex discrimination of the sort that righteous employers abandoned decades earlier, because only backwoods bigots — Republicans for shorthand — would dare pay women less than men in 2014. At least that’s the Democratic talking point.

The proliferation of disparate but similar titles makes difficult the process of comparing equal pay for equal work, as does the congressional culture of frequent job changes.

But it’s the uneven hiring of men to more senior positions that most tilts the comparative wage scale.

Both Johnson and Lewis have men for chiefs of staff, their high six-figure salaries driving the aggregate wage total for men far higher than women.

Already the salary comparison excluded part-time employees, shared employees whose salaries were drawn from multiple members or committees, and those who held their Capitol Hill posting for less than a full year.

But if chiefs of staff, whose salaries are sometimes four times more than junior staffers of either gender, were also excluded, a more equitable wage dynamic would become apparent.

Johnson still pays women less than men in this measure, but female aides to Lewis actually out-earned their male colleagues in the new analysis.

So, hypocrisy or merely flawed statistics? A measure of both.

The ubiquitous 77-cent statistic fails to portray an accurate rendering of workplace inequities for the same reason congressional wage comparisons flop: They aggregate the wages of men and women at all levels, senior and junior alike.

In a 2008 statement applauding the House’s passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, Lewis cited the ubiquitous 77 percent.

“It is not right,” he said of the disparity between the take-home pay of a man and woman. But is it also not right that his female aides, on average, earned just 89 cents on a man’s dollar last year?

It isn’t, but don’t expect the congressman to concede the point.

A narrowed pay gap is important, a recognition that equal pay for dual-household earners makes for more stable families. Also important are statistics that accurately portray workplace dynamics as they are, not as political operators will them. But in campaign season voters will get neither.

James Richardson serves as vice president of Hynes Communications and was formerly a spokesman and adviser to the Republican National Committee and Governors Haley Barbour and Jon Huntsman.