President Obama’s First Law

Jan 29, 2009 12:01pm

In the White House’s East Room on Thursday morning, President Obama signed his first law: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which changes the current law to make it easier for those suing because of alleged pay discrimination. The law, President Obama says, sends "a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone."

Inspired by the Supreme Court case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the new law says that the 180-day statute of limitations for pay discrimination cases is applicable to each allegedly discriminatory paycheck, not merely the date when the pay was agreed upon.

Hired by Goodyear in 1979 to serve as a supervisor in its Gadsden, Ala., tire plant, Ledbetter sued the company for being paid less than her male colleagues, in a case that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The highest court in the land, however, ruled that the law was written in such a way that the statute of limitations had long before run out.

No longer.

After First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden arrived, Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in the case, walked out with President Obama.

"Lilly Ledbetter didn’t set out to be a trailblazer or a household name," President Obama said. "She was just a good hard worker who did her job –- and did it well –- for nearly two decades before discovering that for years, she was paid less than her male colleagues for the very same work. Over the course of her career, she lost more than $200,000 in salary, and even more in pension and Social Security benefits –- losses she still feels today."

Ledbetter, he said, "set out on a journey that would take more than ten years, take her all the way to the Supreme Court, and lead to this bill which will help others get the justice she was denied."

A gaggle of Senators and Congressman, almost all Democrats, stood on the dais awaiting their arrival. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Pat Leahy, D-Vt. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Rob Andrews, D-NJ.

"This is what change looks like," quipped the diminutive Mikulski, the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, to the crowd of advocates.

Two Republicans were in the house as well — Maine’s GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Not a huge Republican showing, but enough for President Obama to say that the "group of legislators who worked so hard" to get the bill passed were not only "remarkable" but "bipartisan."

"It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign," the President said, "we are upholding one of this nation’s first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness."

During the campaign, the bill that bore Ledbetter’s name became a campaign issue after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voted against it, saying it would lead to an explosion of frivolous lawsuits. Ledbetter even cut a campaign ad for Obama:

Some media outlets erroneously reported today that this was not President Obama’s first law, that he’d earlier signed a bill allowing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to assume that post despite having voted to give that office a higher salary, as prohibited by the Constitution. Actually, President Bush signed that legislation — "Compensation and Other Emoluments Attached to the Office of Secretary of the Interior" — on January 16, 2009.

– jpt

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