WASHINGTON — This was not the way Republican leaders had planned to observe Equal Pay Day.
On the eve of Tuesday’s commemoration — the day symbolizing how far into 2014 women must work to catch up to the wages men earned in 2013 — a small newspaper in Louisiana, The Ouachita Citizen — reported that its congressman, Republican Rep. Vance McAllister, had been videotaped making out with a low-paid staffer.
McAllister, called the “Duck Dynasty” congressman because of his defense of the Robertson family’s Christian values, issued a statement asking for forgiveness from God, his family, his staff and constituents, and he declared that he still plans to run for re-election. And the woman, a part-timer paid less than $22,000 a year who also received $300 from McAllister to clean out his campaign office? She was terminated as the story broke, the congressman’s chief of staff told another Louisiana paper.
It takes chutzpah to observe Equal Pay Day by sacking the low-wage employee you’ve been snogging.
Thus did Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, find himself fielding a question about McAllister at a news conference that was meant to highlight the party’s pro-women efforts. “I’m glad he issued an apology,” Cantor said, reserving further judgment on whether the kissing congressman, who has been in office for less than five months, should quit.
Republicans aren’t responsible for McAllister any more than Democrats are to blame for Anthony Weiner’s weirdness. But for Republicans, who have a big disadvantage among unmarried women, this reinforces a perception. The Democrats’ accusation of a GOP “war on women” sticks not because of what Democrats say but because of what Republicans do — and the big problems aren’t personal pratfalls but rather public policy.
In his news conference, Cantor repeatedly called on Democrats to “put the politics aside” and talk with Republicans about “things that we can do together, things that disproportionately impact women, without playing politics.”
In the Senate, where Democrats were daring Republicans to vote against equal-pay legislation, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is likely to face a female Democratic challenger in November, told Democrats to drop “all the show votes.”
Democrats are indeed making partisan attempts to embarrass Republicans on issues important to women. The coordinated actions being taken, including President Obama’s signing of executive orders Tuesday to expose pay disparities by gender among federal contractors, are largely symbolic. The disparity is stubborn. According to the American Enterprise Institute, the 229 women who work in the White House are paid 88 cents on the dollar compared with the 232 men who do, a finding not disputed by the administration.
But when one side complains that the other is “playing politics,” it’s a safe bet that those doing the complaining are losing. Cantor and McConnell don’t seem to grasp that the war-on-women accusations aren’t made in a vacuum; they gain traction because of proposals Republicans are advancing.
Consider Paul Ryan’s budget, which the House is debating this week. Among those functions of government the Republican congressman from Wisconsin would cut, many disproportionately benefit women, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
For example, Medicaid (about 70 percent of adult recipients are women), food stamps (63 percent of adult recipients are women) and Pell grants (62 percent) would be cut. Then there are programs in categories that would face cuts that Ryan hasn’t specified: Supplemental Security Income (two-thirds of the poor and elderly recipients are women), welfare (85 percent of adult recipients are women), housing vouchers (82 percent of recipient households headed by women), child-care assistance (75 percent female-headed households) and the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program.
By contrast, government payments that go disproportionately to men — active-duty military and veterans — are relatively untouched. The highest earners, who are disproportionately male, benefit most under Ryan’s tax proposal, while those receiving low-income tax credits, often families headed by women, would fare poorly.
Certainly, it doesn’t help the Republican image when Michael Hayden, who was CIA director during the George W. Bush administration, attempts to discredit Dianne Feinstein, the earnest and steady chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as “emotional.” Neither does it help when Breitbart News, a conservative outlet, runs ads featuring Nancy Pelosi’s head on an image of a woman twerking. Or when McAllister marks Equal Pay Day by firing the staffer he kissed.
But the indignities visited on a few women wouldn’t be a problem for Republicans if millions of other women weren’t also threatened with injury — by the clinical language of a budget resolution.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.