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WASHINGTON — The accusation was intended to make political reporters bite: U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat from Medina and supporter of pay parity, pays her female staffers just over half the salaries earned by employees who are male.

Turns out the tabulations by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) were incorrect; DelBene’s five female aides actually make 78 cents for every dollar paid to their nine male colleagues.

Though less damning, that gap is exactly the kind of disparity DelBene and other Democrats have assailed as part of their campaign for paycheck fairness. At the same time, the conflicting math shows how both parties have been less than scrupulous in framing a complex economic issue for political gain.

Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the NRCC, called DelBene “hypocritical” for insisting on pay equality while her female congressional staff members earn an average of $33,800, or 53 percent as much as the men. That pay data however, counts only nine full-time workers employed at least a year.

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Payroll data
provided by DelBene’s office for all 14 staffers show a narrower gap: The women draw an average salary of $47,400 compared with $60,500 for the men — or 22 percent lower.

Viet Shelton, DelBene’s spokesman, said no men and women in her office are performing the same work for different pay. The gender gap, Shelton said, stems from men holding more positions with higher salaries.

Three of the four best-paying jobs are held by men, with DelBene’s chief of staff, Aaron Schmidt, drawing the top salary of $125,000. The second-highest salary of $83,000 goes to Legislative Director Lisa Kohn.

“The discussion here is about equal pay for equal work, which is something this office takes very seriously,” Shelton said by email.

Houlton dismissed the explanation. Democrats, he said, used the same faulty math for their repeated claim that American women earn 77 cents for every dollar for men. DelBene has cited that figure — which is not adjusted for experience, occupations and other factors — as recently as two weeks ago when she convened a community discussion in Kirkland on the “real-life consequences of the gender wage gap.”

Houlton called on DelBene to start by addressing the issue in her own office.

“She should be leading by example, don’t you think?” he said.

Shelton retorted that the NRCC attack “is an awfully cheap political shot to distract from the fact that House Republicans don’t support equal pay for women.”

He said the partisan debate couldn’t happen were it not for the fact that congressional salaries are public. That transparency, he said, is one of the reasons why DelBene supports the Paycheck Fairness Act, which among other things would make it easier for workers to divulge salary information without employers retaliating.

The legislation builds on a 2009 law signed by President Obama, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, that extended the statute of limitation for workers to sue for pay discrimination. Democrats pushed that bill through after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter, a Goodyear tire-plant manager, who found out shortly before her retirement that her $44,724 salary was lower than for any of her 15 male peers, including one who earned $62,832.

Last month, Senate Republicans blocked the latest paycheck bill for the third time. The Republican majority in the House is refusing to bring the bill up for a vote.

DelBene is running for her second House term in November against Pedro Celis, an NRCC-backed challenger who, like her, formerly worked for Microsoft.

The NRCC also has gone after three other House Democrats with the claim of payroll hypocrisy: Reps. Ron Barber, Ariz.; John Tierney, Mass.; and Patrick Murphy, Fla.

The gender pay difference is common among congressional and executive offices. The Obama administration last month fended off charges of a double standard after the American Enterprise Institute reported female White House staffers earn 88 cents on the dollar versus the men.

Estimates by the Pew Research Center show the national gender pay gap might be 84 cents to the dollar, smaller than the 77 cents cited by Democrats. But the reasons for the gap have been harder to calculate.

A 2012 report by the American Association of University Women found salary disparities are evident even as soon as one year after graduation and even after controlling for occupations, industries, hours worked and other factors.

One-third of that gender pay gap, the study said,
could not be explained
. Among the unknown possible causes were bias or discrimination and differences in salary-negotiating skills.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or Twitter: @KyungMSong

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