The Overlooked Explosive News Story

With this being an election year and the Democrats locked in one nasty battle over who will run against Gramps McCain, the forgetful and often confused apparent Republican nominee, much of what would normally be big news got buried in the coverage of the campaigns – conflict is more compelling. Earth Day came and went with nary a peep (there’s perhaps a pun in there) – although Mother Jones featured a cover package on sustainable energy, with this piece on the seven “myths” of energy independence. The first myth is that that breaking our addiction to foreign fuel is possible or even desirable, as the political push for energy independence is “a populist charade masquerading as energy strategy” because “to build the energy economy we want, we’re going to lean heavily on the energy economy we have.” Interesting – but it wasn’t news. 

 

And there was the announcement of the Petraeus promotion, to run the whole show in the Middle East, and not just our operations in Iraq. In the Atlantic, Robert Kaplan explained the significance of that:

 

… the personnel changes indicate that the administration is desperate to show enough improvement in Iraq by the end of the year that an incoming Democratic president wouldn’t dare reduce troop levels precipitously and risk being blamed for a dramatic security meltdown. To wit, these appointments demonstrate that, irrespective of who will be the next president, the presidential transition has already begun – on this administration’s terms.

 

In short, pieces are being positioned on the chessboard to carry on the war as a legacy effort, and those in the Pentagon who are queasy about all-out war with Iran, as the next logical step, are being marginalized. Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan, in Revolving Doors, notes also that this signals a change of guard – those who argue for massive systems to fight the next general war, like the mechanized infantry folks and the Air Force leaders arguing for lots of super fighter-bombers at a few billion a pop, are being eased out. We probably won’t be in one of those kinds of wars ever again, and the Air Force should stop dragging its heels on building unmanned drones, as even Tom Cruise pilots are so yesterday. This too is fascinating, but didn’t get much coverage.

 

There was much more – the polygamists in Texas, the expert study saying that abstinence-only sex education did far more harm than good (after many billions spent), the ongoing home mortgage crisis and the larger issue of whether our whole house-of-cards leveraged economy would fall apart, record gasoline prices, the worldwide spike in commodities prices and food riots here and there and all the rest. But we were only momentarily diverted from the drama of presidential politics – you had just a sense that many, many things had gone terribly wrong and we were all doomed, but that passed.

 

People just seemed willing to turn back to wondering about Hillary Clinton. Actually, that might have been avoidance behavior – as scary as she might be, the other stuff was truly terrifying. So you got people like Marty Peretz at the New Republic offering things like this:

 

Hillary Clinton knows exactly what people think of her. Which is why, when asked by her own canvassers – according to a story by Jeff Zeleny and Katharine Q. Seelye in the New York Times – “what they should tell voters on her behalf,” she answered, “Oh, just knock on the door and say, ‘She is really nice’.” “Or you could say, ‘She is not as bad as you think’.” Hillary really knows that people don’t like her. “I am not as bad as you think.”

 

Imagine going through life knowing people think you are… well, what do they really think of her? That she is haughty, that she is a know-it-all, that she is nasty, self-centered, self-righteous, unkind – no – actually mean, holier-than-thou, pompous, entitled, presumptuous, abusive… and I have not yet consulted Roget’s.

 

I can grasp that, if you’ve lived life knowing that’s how your contemporaries, neighbors, even friends feel about you, you must be unhappy. And only someone so unhappy would rely on getting the nomination and winning the election to secure some semblance of happiness and satisfaction. In this sense (and in others, I believe, like having an “enemies list”) she seems to me very much like Richard Milhous Nixon. People like that need desperately to add to their heft with a middle name: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

 

Well, she is as bad as you may think.

 

And he goes on to explain why. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, although presented in what they call a sprightly manner. Actually, it’s comforting – in fact, you could think of political comfort food. Go ahead, order the meatloaf and mashed potatoes. You’ll get what you want and expect – no surprises, nothing with snails and avocado foam. You’ll be in the world you know. Nelson Algren once said (Newsweek, July 2, 1956) – “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” He was wrong about the middle one.

 

But still there are those solidly behind Hillary Clinton – demographically, older women, for one. Many women would like to see a woman president, even this one, as much of a nasty harridan as she can be at times. That word is perhaps modification of French haridelle – old horse, gaunt woman. Another word is shrew – think of Kate in the Shakespeare play, not Bianca. But it just doesn’t matter – it’s time we had a woman president. There are some scores to settle.

 

In the news item that got perhaps the least play this week, there was John McCain deciding to oppose a bill on discrimination against women in the workplace, which Mark Kleiman of the UCLA Scholl for Public Policy calls another gift to the Democrats from John McCain:

 

In particular, he refused to vote for cloture on a bill to reverse the Ledbetter decision, which says that companies that practiced discrimination against female employees in the past and are still underpaying them as a result can keep right on underpaying them.

 

McCain’s excuses: lawsuits (you can’t have people just going to court to seek justice, can you?), and undue government interference in private business (surprise!). He’s opposed to discrimination, of course: it’s just that he’s more opposed to doing anything about it.

 

McCain’s Republican colleagues managed to defeat cloture and kill the bill. Cloture needs 60 votes; it got only 56. So we need to pick up four Senate seats and the Presidency in order to put remedial legislation on the books. And the Republicans must be made to pay a political price for their obstruction.

 

The argument here is that we need sixty Democrats to get anything done, as the Republicans can successfully use a de facto filibuster on anything at all with just forty votes, and they do, over and over and over.

 

But that argument doesn’t resonate with those solidly behind Hillary Clinton. Sure, those sixty, or sixty-one, votes are important, but that doesn’t speak to the underlying grievance.

 

The legislation was to counter the Supreme Court ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire – the plaintiff won a jury verdict that her current pay reflected a history of discriminatory performance evaluations, and then the 11th Circuit ruled that the claim was time-barred, and then, as Kleiman notes:

 

The Conservative Caucus of the Supreme Court (Alito, Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, and Thomas) agreed. Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter, and Breyer dissented. So a poor old woman was cheated out of justice on behalf of a big company by a vote of 5-4.

 

That ought to make a very nice “red meat” section of every Democratic stump speech from now to November.

 

Kleiman is arguing for a less big-business-can-do-no-wrong Supreme Court, for one that responds to the little guy getting the shaft, at least now and then. Court appointments matter as much as having those sixty votes, maybe even more than those sixty votes.

 

But that is a man talking. Women, and those of us who have worked in Human Resources, do know what was going on here.

 

Dahlia Lithwick, Slate’s best writer on the law, and a lawyer, and a woman (obviously), gets it, as you can see in How Dumb Are We? That asked a simple question – “How long will women shoulder the blame for the pay gap?

 

She notes that on Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have overturned a Supreme Court ruling that sharply limited pay-discrimination suits based on gender under Title VII:

 

In Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007), the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, held that the clock for the statute of limitations on wage discrimination begins running when the employer first makes the decision to discriminate, and does not run for all the subsequent months – or in this case, years – that the disparate paychecks are mailed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court, found that the plaintiff in this case, Lilly Ledbetter, was time-barred from filing her discrimination suit because it took more than 180 days after she first got stiffed to discover that she was being stiffed on account of her gender. The court agreed her jury verdict should be overturned.

 

And she didn’t like what happened in the Senate:

 

Many of the Republicans who blocked the vote to reinstate the original reading of Title VII claimed they were doing so to protect women – read “stupid women” – from the greedy clutches of unprincipled plaintiffs’ attorneys and from women’s own stupid inclination to sit around for years – decades even – while being screwed over financially before they bring suit. That means they were, in effect, just protecting us from the dangerous laws that protect us. Whew.

 

Heck, you can see why many women would like Hillary at the helm. Lithwick likes Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent and notes the real devil is in the details:

 

Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire in Atlanta for almost 20 years. When she retired, she was, according to Ginsburg, “the only woman working as an area manager and the pay discrepancy between Ledbetter and her 15 male counterparts was stark: Ledbetter was paid $3,727 per month; the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, the highest paid, $5,236.” So she filed a suit under Title VII, and a jury awarded her more than $3 million in damages. The jury found it “more likely than not that [Goodyear] paid [Ledbetter] a[n] unequal salary because of her sex.”

 

You see, Ledbetter hadn’t just negotiated herself some lame salary. She was expressly barred by her employer from discussing her salary with her co-workers who were racking up raises and bonuses she didn’t even know about. She found out about the disparity between her pay and her male colleagues’ earnings only because someone finally left her an anonymous tip.

 

Of course she was barred from discussing her salary. In the corporate world actual salaries are restricted information – our systems in the aerospace companies had access to them tightly controlled. You didn’t want people grumbling about unfairness forever – no one would get any work done.

 

But Goodyear seemed to be up to something else, as in this case there was no problem with job performance, as Lithwick notes:

 

Quoting Ginsburg again, “Ledbetter’s former supervisor, for example, admitted to the jury that Ledbetter’s pay, during a particular one-year period, fell below Goodyear’s minimum threshold for her position.” The jury also heard evidence that “another supervisor – who evaluated Ledbetter in 1997 and whose evaluation led to her most recent raise denial – was openly biased against women” and that “two women who had previously worked as managers at the plant told the jury they had been subject to pervasive discrimination and were paid less than their male counterparts. One was paid less than the men she supervised.” Ledbetter was told directly by the plant manager that the “plant did not need women, that [women] didn’t help it, [and] caused problems.”

 

Women understand this. Such things happen all the time – and Hillary is running for president.

 

So the House passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to reinstate the law as it was interpreted by most appellate courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to say, as Lithwick notes “that every single discriminatory paycheck represents a new act of discrimination and that the 180-day period begins anew with every one.” The Senate would have none of that, or more precisely, forty-two senators voted against cloture – the issue would remain open and never come to a vote, and thus it was dead.

 

Lithwick points to Kia Franklin’s stats and adds this:

 

Women in the United States are paid only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men; African-American women earn only 63 cents, and Latinas earn only 52 cents for every dollar paid to white men. Yet the Ledbetter decision tells employers that as long as they can hide their discriminatory behavior for six months, they’ve got the green light to treat female employees badly forever. Why isn’t this problem sufficiently real to be addressed by Congress?

 

Maybe it’s because it just about silly women?

 

And to top it off the White House threatened to veto the bill even if Congress passed it. You have to love the reasoning. You see this legislation would “impede justice and undermine the important goal of having allegations of discrimination expeditiously resolved.”

 

Lithwick isn’t buying that:

 

Of course, there is a place for finality in the law, and nobody wants businesses to face prospective lawsuits for conduct from twenty years earlier. But unless an employee is psychic, 180 days is simply not long enough to sniff out an ongoing pattern of often-subtle pay discrimination. The notion that expeditiousness in resolving legal disputes should altogether trump one’s ability to prove them is cynical beyond imagining. And the very notion that extending the statute of limitations somehow encourages scads of stupid women to loll around accepting unfair wages for decades in the hopes of hitting the litigation jackpot in their mid-70s is just insulting. “Sorry, kids! SpaghettiOs again tonight, but just you wait till 2037! We’ll dine like kings, my babies!”

 

And Lithwick cites Orrin Hatch saying, “The only ones who will see an increase in pay are some of the trial lawyers who bring the cases.”

 

She is also not impressed:

 

See, now this is the argument that holds that the same women who are too stupid to bring timely discrimination claims are also too stupid to avoid being manipulated by those scheming plaintiffs’ attorneys. First off, some of us still believe that those damn civil rights attorneys do good things. But what really galls me here is the endless, elitist recitation that it’s only the really dumb people – you know, the injured, the sick, and the women – who aren’t smart enough to avoid being conned by them into filing frivolous lawsuits.

 

There’s more, but Lithwick does get around to John McCain. He skipped the vote – he was busy, even if Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both dropped by and voted for it.

 

The McCain view on the matter is classic – he understands the issue but thinks there are better ways to help women find better-paying jobs – “They need the education and training, particularly since more and more women are heads of their households, as much or more than anybody else.”

 

Lithwick:

 

As my colleague Meghan O’Rourke pointed out yesterday, all that is code for the obtuse claim that the fact that women earn 77 cents on the dollar for the same work as men will somehow be fixed by more training for women as opposed to less discrimination by men. Wow. Hey! We should develop the superpowers of heat vision and flight, as well.

 

Lithwick seems, well… bitter.

 

This is bitter:

 

So, 42 members of the U.S. Senate blocked a bill that would allow victims of gender discrimination to learn of and prove discrimination in those rare cases in which their employers don’t cheerfully discuss it with them at the office Christmas party. And the reasons for blocking it include the fact that women are not smart enough to file timely lawsuits, not smart enough to avoid being manipulated by vile plaintiffs’ lawyers, not smart enough to know when they are being stiffed, and – per John McCain – not well-trained enough in the first place to merit equal pay.

 

You can see how the Hillary supporters feel that even Hillary Clinton would be a refreshing change.

 

And there are the bloggers, like Jessica Grose of Jezebel here saying Lilly Ledbetter “got totally screwed by the Supreme Court” and is now “being screwed by the Senate.’ That’s vivid.

 

There are dissenting views, like this at Reasonable Citizen:

 

The premise is that people should receive equal pay for equal work. Sounds fair, but what if you are willing to work for less money than others? Should you be able to ‘sell’ your economic advantage to win a job? Isn’t that what fair markets are about? Isn’t that exactly how an average wage is established?

 

… Is it permissible for the interviewee to ask for less money than what others make to fulfill an economic need for themselves? I think so.

 

Ah yes, the Invisible Hand of the Free Market will fix everything. Of course the woman in question didn’t ask for less pay. She was just kept in the dark for the required 180 days.

 

Of course there are the structural folks, concerned with procedure. At the Plank, the New Republic’s Josh Patashnik is all over the Republicans for what he calls “a pretty clear abuse of the filibuster.” His point:

 

The filibuster appropriately allows for intense minorities to block major legislation, but the key word is intense. Republicans: You not only oppose this bill, but oppose it with such conviction, and view its defeat as such a critical priority, that it merits a cloture vote? Really?

 

But that is beside the point. The Moderate Voice’s “Damozel” is all over McCain’s comments that women “need the education and training” to close the wage gap:

 

Inequality in pay for the same work is a completely different problem from the lack of marketable skills. Or is he just saying, in a back-handed sort of way, that maybe female employees in general really aren’t as good as male employees?

 

Yes, that is just what he seems to be saying. Anyone might get behind Hillary Clinton, out of sheer anger.

 

But this news story was, in the week’s swirls of events, a minor matter. It was only about women.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Cultural Notes, Hillary Clinton, McCain, The Law, Uncategorized, Women's Equality. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Overlooked Explosive News Story

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    Nice coverage of this vote!

    It really puts the focus on what the Democratic nominee, whoever, could be throwing in the face of the Republican in the fall — unless, of course, that would just highlight how conservative McCain really is after all, which might do more harm than good by bringing out the Republican base. (Boy, whoever coined the phrase, “Politics ain’t beanbag,” really nailed it!)

    On the other hand, I should note that this discussion would get a bit more complicated if you were to separate the two issues — (a) should women be guaranteed, by law, equal pay for equal work in the first place? and (b) should we guarantee, by law, that women like Ledbetter will not be treated unfairly on this 180 days thing? It’s conceivable that someone might say yes to the second one, and still say no to the first. But yeah, maybe for the purpose of this discussion, it’s just as well that you did co-mingle those two questions.

    Still, does today’s column, as it seems to, continue on yesterday’s theme of giving Hillary some of the positive press she may deserve and has not been getting lately? In a way, yes, but it doesn’t take a very close look to see that she doesn’t figure very much in this story, does she?

    After all, has Hillary, as a Senator, really been prominent in this battle for equal treatment of women up to now? Yes, we’re not electing the president of the PTA, as someone in yesterday’s column pointed out, but maybe being a “fighter” who will “fight for you” doesn’t so much mean fiercely fighting Republicans over their misplaced support of injustice as it means fiercely fighting a fellow Democrat for the nomination. Her resume, to date, seems to support that view.

    Then again, I suppose it could be fairly asked, has Barrack been at the forefront of this women’s rights stuff? Maybe not. Yet, all things being equal, it’s just possible that a President Obama would handle this problem better than a President Clinton would — which might mean that all that tenacious support among women for a fellow woman, just because she’s a woman, might, when it comes down to what will be happening “on the ground” in an upcoming Democratic administration, be somewhat misplaced.

    Which further means that maybe we, the voters, should give Hillary another shot at fiercely fighting for us — by keeping her in her present job, in the U.S. Senate.

    As a resident of Georgia, I’ve already done all I can do, and the matter is now out of my hands.

    Rick

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