Just after 6 pm on Thursday night, the Senate, now with a larger Democratic majority, passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. This is a cause for tremendous celebration and one of the first pieces of legislation that will hopefully extend a greater level of equity and fairness to all Americans.
Many have been focused on the accomplishments and the potential of President Obama in these first few days of a new administration, but we must also relish and support the actions of congressional Democrats who are working to right the extraordinary wrongs of the Bush Administration and its supporters throughout government.
For background on the Act, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in 2007 in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company which stated that victims of pay discrimination must take action within the first 180 days of any discriminatory act. The decision essentially blunted any redress for most incidences of pay discrimination, which often become evident only as a pattern over time. Also, many companies can keep pay rates confidential for years and any sort of statute of limitations lets the discrimination stay in place unless it is almost immediately unearthed and addressed.
Accompanying the decision was a blistering dissent from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who exhorted Congress to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act in such a way as to invalidate the decision. The House of Representatives attempted to do so in the summer of 2007, passing legislation onto the Senate.
Senate Republicans, however, filibustered the legislation and Democrats were unable to obtain the 60 votes necessary to obtain cloture. Even if they had, then-President Bush (oh, how I love writing “then”) promised to veto it.
Now, Ted Stevens from Alaska, Elizabeth Dole from North Carolina, John Warner from Virginia and Wayne Allard from Colorado were not there to vote against it, having been replaced by sympathetic Democrats. Perhaps sensing a new tide, Republican Lisa Murkowski from Alaska changed her vote. Oregon’s Gordon Smith, attempting a desperate dive toward the “moderate” label, had supported the Ledbetter Act in 2008, but did little at the time to persuade his fellow Republicans to join him. Now, we have Jeff Merkley, who will not only support fair pay, but will hopefully do so avidly.
Despite this victory, we need to keep pushing even our closest friends. Despite the victory last night, this morning the Senate put off taking action on another vital piece of legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act. This Act would have made it easier for women to join class action lawsuits, prohibited employer retaliation against employees who share their salary information with coworkers, and closed various loopholes that allow employers to circumvent the laws. The Act would have also allowed for more analysis and information gathering which would lead to greater understanding of both specific acts and industry trends that could lead to pay inequity. Please, take a minute to call Wyden and Merkley and tell them to push the Paycheck Fairness Act to the floor of the Senate.
So today, while I’m breaking out some left-over champagne from Tuesday, we shouldn't expect that the hard work of fighting for equality will be over anytime soon.