Friday, July 4, 2014

Equal Pay, Part II: Divisive Politics In Action

The second part in my series on Equal Pay is my personal analysis of why the Paycheck Fairness Act bill was voted down, and what will happen with the bill going forward.  This is not an analysis of the gender wage gap, or the bill itself, I am just looking at the way that legislation is used by lawmakers.  The bill was not brought to a vote in an attempt to pass a law, it was simply an attempt to create political ammunition.

To start with I will look at the political ammunition that was created for the Democrats (notice that this is not about Liberal or Conservative, this is about politics as a zero sum game):

My friend Meagan asked me if this was true.  Here was my response:

Short answer: Yes. (Every single Senate Republican)

Long Answer: No, the bill wouldn't have mandated equal pay, but it would have increased transparency and allowed people who felt that they were being discriminated against to sue. 
So, yes, kinda. 
Except it never would have passed the R dominated house in any case, so the bill was a political maneuver not a good faith attempt to pass a law. The Senate could have still passed the bill, but they would have had to tolerate a filibuster. Of course a filibuster is just someone talking for as long as they can so that people will get bored and leave. I guess the Senate Democrats didn't feel strongly enough about it to sit through some endless prattling by some Republican when the bill wouldn't have passed the house anyway. But it is a good bet that Republicans would have filibustered even though the bill wouldn't have passed because they would have been able to make political hay. So it may have been a tactical move on the part of the Democrats. The possibility of it being a tactical move is further supported by Harry Reid switching his vote to "No" so that the Democrats can bring the bill up for vote again. The bill will probably be back, but it probably still won't pass.

This kind of legislation is brought up to prove how bad the other side is.  The Democrats have the majority in the Senate, but not in the House.  Because it can be safely assumed that the Republican House would not have passed this legislation, it is hard to see the raising of this legislation as an honest attempt to pass a law.

The Democratic party has a majority in the Senate.  If they wanted to they could force the issue.  All they have to do is wait.  A filibuster simply prolongs debate, but if the majority refuses to add anything else to the agenda then a vote will happen.  That is how the Civil Rights Act passed.  A filibuster is a way to waste time and make a vote a pain in the ass.  If Senators are willing to tolerate the annoyance it is not an insurmountable obstacle.

The Democrats knew the Republicans could force a filibuster.  They brought up the bill, and Republicans threatened a filibuster, so the Democrats backed off.  But why would the Republican senators even filibuster?  The bill would not have passed the House.  The bill never had a chance, but the Republicans would have wasted time grandstanding anyway.

I would argue that the Democrats backed off because they didn't want to give the Republicans an opportunity to engage in grandstanding, plus the Democrats got what they wanted just by having the Republicans oppose the bill.  The Democrats got the opportunity to make claims like the one in the meme above.  This kind of claim is powerful.  It "proves" that Republicans hate women (though a glance at my Facebook wall indicates that there are a lot of Republican/Conservative women out there) without having to risk actually passing legislation.

But what is most important about this legislation is the way it was taken back by the Democrats.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) voted against the bill.  Remember, if the Democrats really thought this bill had a chance they could have pushed it.  But they didn't, because they knew it wasn't going anywhere.  By having Harry Reid vote against the bill though they put themselves in a position where they can bring the bill back up any time they want.

Democrats have established that the Republicans are going to oppose the bill, and have opposed the bill.  I'm pretty sure we'll be seeing this debate again, but much more dramatically as the elections approach.  the first time around was laying the groundwork.  Much more fiery rhetoric can be used at a more politically advantageous time, no reason to waste a lot of political acrimony during the early part of the year.

This is about winning, not good governance.  For both sides.  Lets be clear here, I don't want to paint the Republicans as good guys or honest in any way.  Both sides are fighting to beat the other side.  Defeating the opponent is more important than helping the country.  Democrats raise bills just to fire up the base, and then the Republicans threaten meaningless unnecessary filibusters on bills that aren't going to make it into law anyway.  And by engaging in these sorts of tactics both sides further entrench the partisan divisions in our society.

(Coming soon:  Equal Pay Part III:  But that is going to require quite a bit of research on my part.  My first entry on the topic showed me just how much more there is for me to know about the topic.  Also, Purple America: Red States and Blue States are a Lie. Don't believe me? It's true.)


  1. I *think* you're saying is that what Democrats did -- proffer a bill they knew wouldn't be adopted by Republicans on an important issue solely to illustrate to the nation their (assumedly unpopular) stance on a divisive issue -- is a bad thing that "further entrench[ed] the partisan divisions in our society".

    I'm not sure. Maybe it's not so bad as a legislator to force your colleagues to record their position in black-and-white on a matter publicly, rather than allowing them to hide in shades of gray when there are no actual or threatened steaks. Even if you know you'll lose this time around, it forces the discussion -- especially in an atmosphere where women and minorities are increasingly important to election outcomes -- to maybe win eventually on the issue.

    For bonus points -- can you give me a quick civics lesson on the filibuster? What you say about just waiting for the end of the filibuster to get a vote surprises the heck out of me. I always thought that modern filibusters weren't like the one in Mr Smith Goes To Washington -- I thought all the filibustering side need do is register their intention to filibuster and then a de-facto freeze is placed on the legislation until a vote count sufficient to overcome it is established. I didn't think actual marathon talking sessions occurred anymore.

    1. I'm not able to give a long response at the moment, but modern filibusters still go on with marathon speeches. One of the longest filibusters in US history was last year by Rand Paul. The big change from the past is just that minority parties have been going increasingly crazy with the filibuster since the 70's. For the last couple Senates the filibusters have been so out of hand that nothing could get done if the majority party didn't cave to the threat when they couldn't force cloture.

      If the Dems wanted to convince me that this wasn't as cynical as I described they could actually stick it out. Make the Republicans explain why blocking a bill like this was more important than governance.

      Wikipedia has a good article on Filibuster in the US.

    2. Not that the Democrats have any reason to try to convince me. It just bothers me that both parties let each other get away with this kind of maneuver. There was no reason for the Republicans to threaten a filibuster. The bill couldn't have passed the House. The only reason that they would threaten is because they could keep the bill from coming to a vote (a vote on the actual bill, rather than a vote on cloture) because they knew the Democrats wouldn't force the issue.

      This just seems like another example of both sides participating in the bullshit dance.

      I actually think that the filibuster is an important tool to have in the Senate. It is important for the minority to have an obstructive tool. Especially in times where the House and the Senate are controlled by the same party. In times like this when there is a split, the overuse of the filibuster is grotesquely unethical.