Comparable Worth Is Back

Article excerpt

While Republicans sit silently, Democrats are making hay this election year with various "pay equity" bills-which promise to Sovietize U.S. wage scales.

It's five months before the November elections, and ultra-liberals Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy are holding court in Dirksen Senate Office Building. Republican Chairman Jim Jeffords looks on politely. No, this isn't a pep rally for an improbable Democratic takeover of the Senate. It's the next best thing, at least for the Democrats: a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on establishing comparable worth-federal wage and salary controls regulating how much employers must pay each male and female worker.

Senator Harkin is grilling Anita Hattiangadi of the free-marketoriented Employment Policy Foundation about comparable worth. He says "it's about time we do it here," and calls for passage of the Fair Pay Act, of which he is sponsor. Harkin and Kennedy alike ignore testimony from one of the leading academic experts on women's wages, former Congressional Budget Office Director June O'Neill. In her view, comparable worth demeans women because "it conveys the message that women cannot compete in nontraditional jobs and can only be helped through the patronage of a job evaluator."

Mindful of such criticisms, supporters of comparable worth are repackaging it these days as "pay equity." It's a warm, fuzzy concept, designed to lure working women with the promise of potential raises and to discourage political opposition. After all, who could be against equity?

Indeed, pay equity is already a catch phrase among Democrats, who invoked it throughout the hearing. A massive U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, due out in September, will portray "pay equity" as the new civil rights goal for women.

In an election year, meanwhile, no Republican wants to be seen as insensitive on women's issues. Thus the performance of Jeffords's committee. Neither the chairman nor Maine's Susan Collins, who made a brief appearance, seriously criticized comparable worth. In fact, aside from Jeffords and Collins, no other Republican senator bothered to show up. By contrast, five Democratic senators -- Harkin, Kennedy, Paul Wellstone, Patty Murray, and Jack Reed-attended. Democratic witnesses also outnumbered Republican. Normally when a minority senator goes after a majority witness, the chairman or another Republican senator will come to his defense. Not in this case.

Harkin vociferously challenged anyone who criticized his bill. Adding a plebeian touch of his own, Kennedy complained that his wife was discriminated against because law-firm colleagues didn't invite her to play golf. Facing a tough re-election in left-leaning Vermont, Chairman Jeffords went right along, giving a spotlight to representatives from the administration as well as from three groups-the Institute for Women's Policy Research, the National Women's Law Center, and Business and Professional Women/USA- noted for advocating special benefits for women.

These groups are especially keen on Harkin's Fair Pay Act because it mandates wage controls. President Clinton, meanwhile, has endorsed Sen. Tom Daschle's Paycheck Fairness Act, which proposes voluntary wage guidelines. The House version of Harkin's bill is co-sponsored by Connie Morella, who often votes with the Democrats and is the only Republican officially behind either bill. But even if they don't go on record to support comparable worth, Republicans are wary of taking a strong stand against it.

Neither bill is expected to pass this year. Nonetheless, this growing attention to comparable worth and pay equity suggests how easily some version could become law if Al Gore were elected president and the Democrats won back Congress.

What Would It Do?

The Fair Pay Act would require employers to compensate workers according to an artificial calculation of a job's 11 value" rather than on what anyone is willing to pay. …