If Maryland's resident pit bull, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, has demonstrated anything in her several decades in Congress and as dean of Senate women, it's a willingness to stand up for the less powerful in society, and she was at it again this week advocating for the Paycheck Fairness Act and the rights of women to secure equal pay for equal work.
To the surprise of no one, Senate Republicans were unmoved by the cause and blocked the much-needed legislation from floor debate as it fell eight votes short of the 60 required. Even discussing equal pay on the Senate floor was apparently too much for the faint-hearted GOP.
We would not pretend there was not a distinct political gain to be had by Democrats in this. Even this setback highlights the differences between the two parties on a core belief. As Senator Mikulski noted after the bill's failure, quoting a letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, who was helping draft a constitution for a fledgling nation: "Do not forget the ladies or they will foment a revolution of their own."
President Barack Obama is counting on that kind of support to win reelection this fall. So many will no doubt reduce Tuesday's action to an exercise in politics and posturing — a no-risk currying of favor with a critically important constituency.
There's only one thing wrong with that. The Paycheck Fairness Act is genuinely needed, and it's not the fault of Democrats, Ms. Mikulski included, that their colleagues from the other side of the aisle are so willing to countenance pay discrimination — as quietly as possible, that is.
It is notable that Senate Republicans didn't take the floor en mass to denounce the Paycheck Fairness Act (aside from just one, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who has been pushing for his own anti-discrimination law). They'd prefer that discrimination be done without a lot of fuss or attention.
When the Lilly Ledbetter Act was approved in 2009, it won bipartisan support. The Paycheck Fairness Act merely attempts to close loopholes that exist in the Ledbetter Act, and require employers to demonstrate that differences in pay are due to factors other than gender. In a country where women earn an average of 77 cents for every dollar made by men, is it too much to offer employers a stronger incentive (and better enforcement mechanism) to comply with the law?
Those who scoff that it's more a sop to trial lawyers than an effort to protect civil rights conveniently forget that employers have an easy way to shield themselves from legal action: Don't discriminate against women. And most Americans support that goal. Mr. Obama endorsed legislation to achieve it in 2008, while his opponent did not. We seem to recall that worked out pretty well for Mr. Obama.
The Ledbetter Act wasn't enough. Studies show women still face serious pay inequality. And it's not just because they've chosen professions that are lower paid; comparable employment is not receiving comparable pay.
Do we really want to allow employers to retaliate against women who dare to ask how much a colleague earns? Is it not reasonable for the worst abusers to face punitive damages? Without such a threat, they may find discrimination too profitable to discontinue — even if it means getting dragged into civil court once in a while.
Granted, the Paycheck Fairness Act had about as much chance as a snow cone sitting on the Ocean City boardwalk in August of surviving a gridlocked Congress in an election year. But if Democrats aren't even going to attempt to do the right thing when they are sent to Washington, then what's the point of showing up at all?
Let the American people decide whether they are comfortable with unequal pay for equal work. In 1963, women earned 59 cents on the dollar, and they have improved 18 cents in 49 years. That's some progress, but it's at an awfully slow pace.