Equal Pay for Play

Democrats behind lawsuit bill have received tens of millions from trial lawyers

June 7, 2012

The Democratic-led Senate on Tuesday failed to advance a bill that would have enriched a constituency—trial lawyers—that is the number one source of political contributions for all but five members of the Senate Democratic caucus.

The "Paycheck Fairness Act" would have established unlimited punitive damage claims in class action lawsuits filed against employers in instances of alleged gender discrimination. The chief beneficiaries of the bill, experts told the Washington Free Beacon, would not have been female workers but the lawyers and law firms that would litigate the lucrative lawsuits made possible by its passage.

Those same lawyers and firms contribute millions of dollars to the Democratic Party. In 2008, lawyers and law firms donated more than $230 million to federal political candidates and committees, 76 percent of which went to Democrats.

The industry gave $43.2 million to President Obama in 2008 and was his top source of campaign donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The industry is also the number one source of political donations for 48 of the 53 members of the Senate Democratic caucus over the course of their careers. In total, lawyers and law firms have contributed more than $132 million to Senate Democrats—all of whom supported the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Sens. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) are the only Democratic caucus members for whom lawyers are not the top source of political donations. Lawyers are the second-highest contributors to all of those senators except for Sanders.

By contrast, the top donors to Senate Republicans hail from a variety of industries, including healthcare, agriculture, business, and health professionals. Lawyers are the number one contributors to only four Republican senators. None of those senators supported the trial lawyer-enriching bill.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), who has been one of the most aggressive critics of Republican opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Act, has received more than $5.4 million from lawyers and law firms over the course of her career. A number of those firms specialize in the very sort of lucrative class action lawsuits likely to proliferate under the measure.

"There is a lot of injustice in the workplace. Employees face discrimination or even harassment," reads the website of Girardi & Keese, a firm that has given more than $135,000 to Boxer since 1989 and is her fifth-largest political contributor. "Proving those employment law cases can be tough, but at Girardi | Keese, our lawyers know how to get to the truth and challenge big companies in court."

Boxer defended the Paycheck Fairness Act in an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday, suggesting that businesses should not fire women unless they are prepared to defend the decision in court.

"You have to obey the law and you cannot discriminate against a woman, if this were to be the law," she said. "You cannot fire her and if you fire her then you’re going to get sanctions by a fair court and a fair jury. That’s how we do things in America."

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.), the bill’s chief sponsor, has received more than $850,000 from lawyers and law firms since 1989.

"I don’t know Barbara Mikulski well, but I believe that she is motivated earnestly by what she feels is a righteous crusade for women’s equality in the workplace," said Darren McKinney of the American Tort Reform Association. "That said, I think there are certainly others in her party who are happy to pay homage to the plaintiffs bar and the generous checks they write."

Republicans have cited the proliferation of frivolous lawsuits as a chief reason for their opposition to the bill, a concern echoed by the editorial pages of the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.

"The only winners under this legislation would be trial lawyers," said Sen. Dean Heller (R., Nev.) before the vote on Tuesday morning. "Legitimate cases that could be addressed under the current system would be lost in a flood of lawsuits."

Democrats such as Schumer have refused to address this charge, insisting that Republicans "don’t have any good arguments" for opposing the bill. And because the legislation is called the "Paycheck Fairness Act," Senate Democrats have attacked the GOP for opposing equal pay for women.

"The Republican #WarOnWomen continues: @Senate_GOPs block the Paycheck Fairness," Boxer wrote on Twitter following the vote.

"Very disappointed that Rs in Congress let down women & girls today," added senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.

"Why don’t [Republicans] think women deserve #EqualPay?" wrote Schumer.

This is typical of Democrats, said Jay Cost, a political analyst and author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.

"They always couch their demands in communitarian rhetoric: labor unions support ‘workers rights’; environmentalists support ‘clean water’; how could anyone be against those?" Cost said. "As usual, ‘paycheck fairness’ is just another huge bonanza for a special interest group tied to the Democratic Party."

It is also rather ironic, given that Senate Democrats consistently pay their female staff members less than male staffers.

The bill has no chance of passing Congress this year, and many political observers believe it is part of a concerted effort by Democrats and the White House to damage the Republican Party with female voters ahead of the November elections.

Even so, the underlying premise of the legislation is frightening, McKinney said.

"Once government gets to dictate to employers how they should value and reward individual employees, America as we’ve know it would cease to exist," he said. "If we ever decide that Congress or executive branch bureaucrats have the sufficient knowledge, much less the integrity, to successfully undertake such a function, we’re all doomed."