The XX Factor

Boehner Applauded Equal Pay at Last Year’s State of the Union. Why Not This Year?

Tuesday night’s State of the Union address covered many of the same themes as last year’s speech, but President Obama had a little more fire in his belly, and Republicans appeared more hostile to his message. One big change was how congressional Republicans reacted when Obama declared his support for equal pay for women. Last year, Obama mentioned that women make 77 cents on a man’s dollar and added, “That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work.” The line drew crazy applause from people on both sides of the aisle, and John Boehner made sure to appear on camera standing and applauding the sentiment. 

Obama used a nearly identical line this year: “That’s why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.” This time, however, Republican butts, including Speaker Boehner’s, largely stayed planted to their chairs. There were even some shenanigans as Democrats tried to shame them for it. 

What changed? The 2014 speech mentioned equal pay as more of an abstract principle, whereas this year’s speech detailed specific steps Congress ought to take to support it. Republicans have a history of claiming to support the idea of equal pay while shutting down every attempt to turn that ideal into a reality through legislative effort. They’re fine with applauding the idea that women “deserve” equal pay but balk when called upon to put their supposed support into action. 

But the Republican messaging on the issue is also shifting. Last year, desperate to shut down the “war on women” narrative, Republicans used the State of the Union response by Cathy McMorris Rodgers to suggest that the party supports working mothers. But doing a little rah-rah-for-moms thing is a lot harder to pull off when the president is laying out concrete policy ideas that women actually need, such as equal pay protections and federally subsidized child care. So while the Republicans once again put a women out front for their State of the Union response speech, their pick this year, Joni Ernst, spent most of her time celebrating the character-building aspects of belt-tightening and largely ignoring overt mentions of gender. 

Certainly, the contrast between the two parties is much clearer this year than last. The president talks about how people, particularly women, need to be paid more and receive more benefits for their work, while Ernst waxes nostalgic about having only one pair of shoes and a family that had “very little to call their own except the sweat on their brow and the dirt on their hands.” Both sides emphasize the value of hard work, but as Obama continues to push the line that people need to get more for that work, expect that Republicans will counter by suggesting that the real reason people are in need is not because of lack of equal pay or child care, but because they aren’t working quite hard enough.