'Comparable Worth' Rears Ugly Head in the Age of Obama

Nevertheless, the comparable worth movement marches on. Comparable worth, as Clegg explained in a recent AEI publication, is not really about actual data, but about subjective views of those who contend certain jobs should be paid more. He wrote:

[W]hat comparable worth is about is the government requiring that a man doing one job and a woman doing another, different jobs be paid the same amount, on the grounds that, in someone's opinion, the two different jobs have "comparable worth."

Two versions of comparable worth that been rattling around Congress for some time would impose this arcane system of government-controlled wage "fairness" on employers: the Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. The latter passed the House earlier this year. It drew criticism even from the Washington Post, which explained:

The Paycheck Fairness Act contains some reasonable measures, such as protecting workers from retaliation if they question pay structures. But it also potentially invites too much intrusion and interference with core business decisions. For example, the new bill allows employers to defend against lawsuits by proving that pay disparities between men and women were based on "bona fide" factors, such as experience or education, and that these factors are tied to business necessities. Fair enough. But the bill also says that this defense "shall not apply" when the employee "demonstrates that an alternative employment practice exists that would serve the same business purpose without producing such differential and that the employer has refused to adopt such alternative practice." But what if the employer has refused because it has concluded that the alternative is, indeed, more costly or less efficient? What if the employee and employer disagree on what the "business purpose" is or should be?

The idea behind the Paycheck Fairness Act is to tangle employers in endless rounds of litigation. Each and every employee would have a ready-made lawsuit if she could identify some job -- even one in a different field or held by more experienced workers -- which paid more than hers.

The bill is now sitting in the Senate. Some speculate that with the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reversed a recent Supreme Court case and in essence abolished any meaningful statute of limitations on claims under the Equal Pay Act, the heat will be off to move forward on comparable worth.

But that may be wishful thinking by those who underestimate the Obama administration's desire to manipulate the free market system for its desired social ends. After all, if the government can decide which cars GM will build, which bank CEOs can keep their jobs, and what bonus is "too excessive," there is little to prevent it from reaching into the workplace in the name of "gender equality."

And liberal women's groups are already agitating for more action from the Obama administration. So it would be quite understandable if the president would take up this cause, particularly as other agenda items stall and his special interest supporters lament the lack of progress on everything from card check to cap-and-trade.

The Obama administration is certainly sympathetic to the notion that the free market is "broken" and that compensation is somehow not subject to competitive forces. So it would, in some ways, be entirely natural for them to take up the cause of "finally fixing" gender inequality in the U.S. The result would be a gift to the trial lawyers -- but, come to think of it, rewarding a favorite Democratic political ally would only add to its allure.

Those who fear further politicization of the economy and the spread of rampant litigation should remain vigilant. Comparable worth is a bad idea which may find a willing advocate in the current administration. It is a bad idea that might just have found its time.