Milbank: Democrats' equal pay plan turns sour
WASHINGTON — When life gives you lemons, the saying goes, make lemonade.
And what if life gives Democrats lemonade? Well, they'll try to sell it to hurrying rush-hour commuters outside. On a cool morning. In a downpour.
The Democratic National Committee hatched a clever plan to draw attention Tuesday to Equal Pay Day, the annual reminder that women earn only 79 cents on average for every dollar men earn. They would sell lemonade on Capitol Hill and charge men $1 a cup but women only 79 cents.
But there were a few holes in the business plan — beyond the reality that men and women alike do not typically enjoy lemonade, at any price, early on a chilly and rainy morning.
The Democrats, further, did not have a permit to sell, which meant they had to give the stuff away for a "suggested donation." Nor were they aware that they would be competing with a charity selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts on the very same spot. They also, apparently, didn't have authorization to set up their stand, which caused the station manager to call the transit police.
Over an hour, the 10 women from the DNC approached a couple thousand commuters at the Capitol South Metro station and "sold" all of 20 cups — perhaps inadvertently confirming the oft-leveled charge by Republicans that Democrats wouldn't even know how to operate a lemonade stand.
But profit was not the purpose of this citrus. The Democrats were making a point. And so, with a Cuban cigar box for a cash register and two plastic bottles of lemonade for product, they displayed a hand-colored sign: "Lemonade. Boys $1.00, Girs 79 cents."
"I forgot the L" in girls, one of the young Democrats explained.
The women received several attagirls from passers-by, a few dismissive shakes of the head — and a whole lot of puzzled looks and comments.
"You registering people to vote?"
"I'll do it on my way back."
"I don't even work over here."
"I don't take drinks from strangers."
The course of fair pay never did run smooth.
There is no real dispute that women earn less than men — 79 cents in median wages on the dollar. The problem has gained new attention recently with the publicity about the U.S. women's soccer team earning less than the men's team, women on the professional tennis circuit earning less than men, and Hollywood stars such as Jennifer Lawrence earning less than their male counterparts.
But fixing the pay gap is about as easy as selling lemonade in a cold rain. Equal-pay laws are difficult to enforce. Pay data is often private, and the burden of proof often rests with victims. Women are concentrated in lower-wage occupations, and they take more time out of the workforce for child care.
There are some ideas to reduce the gap. Paid sick and parental leave would help to offset the wages women lose as caregivers. And legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act would make it easier to enforce equal-pay laws, in part by making it easier to bring cases of wage discrimination.
But even a conscientious employer would have trouble eliminating the gap. The Washington Post found that women in the Obama White House earn 13 percent less than men. And the Republican National Committee responded to the Democrats' lemonade-stand theatrics by threatening to set up a rival stand selling lemonade for 72 cents — the pay gap, according to one study, faced by women who worked in Hillary Clinton's Senate office.
Kate Houghton, the shift leader of the DNC's lemonade stand, wished no fewer than 500 commuters a "Happy Equal Pay Day." She and her colleagues handed out 1,000 "receipts" showing a table of pay disparities and asserting that the three Republican presidential candidates "don't support ensuring equal pay for women." Some commuters gave a smile, a thumbs-up or a contribution. The most common reply: "No, thank you" — to the lemonade, not equal pay.
In the end, not a single woman accepted her 21-cent discount, and several customers paid extra, giving the 10 workers from the DNC receipts of $53.60 to show for their hour's work, to be given to charity.
Proceeds might have exceeded the mid-two-figures if it hadn't started pouring, or if the guy from the Amateur Athletic Union hadn't put up a canopy and started selling donuts, or if the station manager hadn't informed the women that they weren't "authorized."
By the time the police arrived, the DNC scofflaws had decamped to Peet's Coffee for warmer beverages. Their lemonade jug remained half full.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.