Bush Vows to Veto Pay Discrimination Legislation

July 27, 2007

On the cusp of House action on a pay discrimination bill that would overturn a recent Supreme Court ruling, the Bush administration has come out in opposition to the measure.

The House is expected to consider the legislation, the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007, as soon as Monday, July 30. The bill would allow victims to file a claim within 180 days of any paycheck that has been diminished by bias—even if the discriminatory act that set the pay disparity in motion occurred decades ago.

The legislation would undo a contentious 5-4Supreme Court decision handed down May 29. The court ruled that a pay discrimination claim must be filed within 180 days of the moment that an unfair pay decision is made, under federal discrimination law. Outside of that statutory window, which in some states is 300 days, an employer is not liable, the court said. The decision significantly narrows the scope of pay cases.

In a policy statement released Friday, July 27, the Bush administration vowed to veto the House bill, saying it would result in the “effective elimination of any statute of limitations.”

The legislation “constitutes a major change in, and expanded application of, employment discrimination law,” the administration said. It asserted that the bill would waive limitations for discrimination claims beyond pay—like promotion or termination.

Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said a looming veto would not slow down the Ledbetter bill.

“The President has issued enough veto threats to paper the walls of the U.S. Capitol building,” Miller said in a statement. “But this legislation is going to pass with bipartisan support, and it is going to become law, because it is the right thing to do. It would be unconscionable for us to permit this discrimination to continue.”

Miller characterized Bush as opposing civil rights. “This is a basic value that Americans cherish, and it is a shame to see the president of the United States fight against it,” he said.

Business groups are taking Bush’s position. On July 27, the National Association of Manufacturers sent a letter to House members urging them to oppose the Ledbetter bill and designating it a “key vote” that will help determine the organization’s re-election support.

The bill “would not only reverse Ledbetter but would overhaul key portions of major civil rights laws. The bill would severely weaken, and effectively eliminate, the statute of limitations for filing discrimination claims,” NAM wrote.

Despite Republican opposition, the measure will almost certainly be approved by the Democratic-led House.

Supporters of the bill are responding in part to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who excoriated the court majority for ignoring the realities of today’s workplace—where pay levels are secret and women and minorities can feel intimidated. Ginsburg encouraged Congress to clarify the statute of limitations in federal discrimination law.

Democrats rebut critics’ assertion that the bill would foster costly new litigation by pointing to a recent Congressional Budget Office study.

“Because many variables influence the filing of a claim forpay discrimination, CBO expects that the bill would not significantly affect the number of filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” the estimate states.

Thecase that inspired the legislation involves Lilly Ledbetter, a former supervisor at a Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama. The Supreme Court ruled that she could not sue the company for paying her less than it paid men for the same job over most of her nearly 20-year tenure because she did not file the suit when the discrimination occurred in the 1970s. Ledbetter said she did not discover the disparity until more than a decade later.

Democrats contend that a narrow statute of limitations allows companies to hide discrimination long enough to avoid punishment.

“This is unacceptable—that you win by being able to keep an illegal act secret,” Miller said when his committee approved the bill on June 27. “That’s what cries out for this legislation.”

At that meeting, Republicans said the bill would create myriad new liabilities for companies and subject them to expensive jury verdicts.

“This bill will destroy American jobs,” said Rep. John Price, R-Georgia.

Rep. Robert Andrews, D-New Jersey, countered that the measure would not make it easier to win discrimination cases.

“It is the burden of the plaintiff to prove that a payment has been infected by discrimination,” he said.

ASenate companion bill was introduced on July 20 by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Mark Schoeff Jr.