Politics & Policy

Maddow, Heroine, Tilts at Windmills

In championing the Paycheck Fairness Act, she rides roughshod over the truth.

Oh, Rachel Maddow. Where to begin?

On June 5, the Senate struck down the Paycheck Fairness Act, a proposed law designed to help women sue businesses for gender-based wage discrimination. The legislation drew criticism from corporate interests across the country for its potential to encourage frivolous lawsuits and hurt small businesses. Even the Washington Post thought it was a bad bill.

But not Rachel Maddow. Since the bill’s nascence, she has championed its quixotic goal of making a nation where gender wage gaps will be forever banished. In several blog posts and segments on her MSNBC show, she has argued that the only people who could possibly oppose the Paycheck Fairness Act are delusional conservatives who care more about the Chamber of Commerce than about women. She has based most of her arguments on an oft-repeated statistic: For every dollar men make, women make $0.77.

“Women get paid less than men do, 77 cents on the dollar on average, that’s true,” she said on May 1. “Democrats know that’s true. It is the accepted truth by anybody who’s looking at the facts of the matter. Republicans do not know that’s true.”

For Maddow, America’s future hinges on whether or not most Americans are as delusional as your average right-winger:

“Does the country live in Republican world where women getting paid less than men somehow isn’t a problem, where policy on issues like this somehow doesn’t matter, because it turns out women are doing great?” she asked.

It’s a rhetorical question, but it deserves a serious answer. If the 77-cent statistic were right, it would be compelling. But the truth isn’t that simple.

In an appearance on Meet the Press, Maddow got in a testy spat with Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who explained why the statistic is misleading. Men work, on average, three hours more per week than women do, he noted, and they often enter more lucrative fields, such as science and engineering. He added that in some age brackets, single women actually make more than their male counterparts. But when marriage is added to the equation, the income gap rears its head, perhaps because women with children tend to choose jobs that allow more flexible schedules.

Maddow responded by pointing out (fairly, in my view) that Castellanos was condescending.

But for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that Maddow is right: The Scrooge McDucks who are chowing down on much more than their fair share of the economic pie are leading the charge in the War on Women by paying ladies only 77 percent of what their male counterparts earn.

For the sake of argument, let’s buy that. The next question is, What exactly does the Paycheck Fairness Act accomplish?

Given how vocally Maddow defended the bill, one would think she took the time to fully explain this fairly complex piece of legislation to her audience. And one would be wrong.

Here’s an example of how Maddow characterized the bill, written by Steve Benen for her blog, and quoting a New York Times op-ed:

The bill would “enhance the remedies available for victims of gender-based discrimination and require employers to show that wage differences are job-related, not sex-based, and driven by business necessity. The measure would also protect employees from retaliation for sharing salary information, which is important for deterring and challenging discriminatory compensation.”

From that description, the legislation sounds pretty benign. But, alas, the devil is in the details. As I explained back in early June, this policy would place the burden of proof on employers to show that pay discrepancies are a “business necessity,” rather than requiring plaintiffs to demonstrate that they face discrimination. The bill would also eliminate the current $300,000 cap on discrimination suits, incentivizing trial lawyers to press as many cases as possible in hopes of a few big wins. And it would make class-action suits work on an opt-out basis, which means that all the women in a business could automatically be included in a suit unless they voluntarily rejected the possibility of a windfall. These are all details — and not trivial ones — that, to my knowledge, Maddow never mentioned.

One aspect of the bill that she emphasized, though, is that it ensures workers’ right to share their salary information. And here’s one more detail that hasn’t come up on The Rachel Maddow Show: Thanks to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers already have that right. Staffers from the offices of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.), have not responded to National Review’s requests for an explanation of why workers’ rights to share salary information isn’t adequately protected in current law. 

So we’re left with a piece of legislation designed to fix a problem whose scope and causes we don’t even agree on. And this law, which leaves businesses vulnerable to enormous class-action lawsuits with unlimited penalties, is to be implemented during one of the country’s darkest economic times since the invention of the VCR. It’s awful to contemplate, but if this bill had been passed, June’s unemployment numbers could have been even worse.

But at least we have Maddow and the Democratic party to defend the truth from those lady-hating Republicans.

She put it this way: “The Democratic side is making a bet that . . . the average general-election voter does not live in Republican world, but rather in the reality-based community, where facts are useful for understanding what problems are and policy is useful for solving those problems.”

As an inhabitant of Republican world, I can only conclude with this: Maddow is fond of suggesting that conservative voters are delusional dum-dums who see only the facts they like, which they use to support exclusively ideological ends, rather than solutions to real problems. It’s up to you to decide who fits that description best.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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