Fact-checking claims about pay gaps in Clinton's Senate office, Obama's White House

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hosts a small business forum with members of the business and lending communities at Bike Tech bicycle shop on May 19, 2015, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Getty)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hosts a small business forum with members of the business and lending communities at Bike Tech bicycle shop on May 19, 2015, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Getty)

Hillary Clinton touts herself as a champion for women and equal pay, but Republican commentators are challenging that narrative by pointing to the payroll of her U.S. Senate staff.

In February, the conservative online Washington Free Beacon published its analysis of salaries among Clinton’s Senate staffers from 2002-08. The results, the website said, showed female staffers were paid 72 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Some pundits since have trumpeted the revelation as a black eye for Clinton, one that shows she oversaw a gender pay-gap even worse than the popular, but often flawed, national 77-cent statistic.

Sean Hannity previewed a panel discussion about the story on the May 14 episode of Hannity on Fox News, saying, "As senator, she actually paid female staffers a lot less than the men."

That claim rates Mostly False.

The Free Beacon analysis isn’t the only way of looking at the issue, and the Free Beacon’s dataset isn’t perfect. For instance, it excludes salary information from most of Clinton’s first year in office, and it only includes employees who worked the full year.

That leaves out Senate staffers who didn’t work a full year or took leaves of absence to work on the political side — something they’re not allowed to do on work time. Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said this is a common practice for staffers on Capitol Hill, so leaving out those employees paints an incomplete view.

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, provided its own salary data for full-time male and female staffers on a calendar-year basis regardless of whether they worked the full year. Viewing the data through this lens shows an equal median salary of  --$40,000 -- for both men and women  (excluding Clinton’s pay).

There are caveats with this data, too, and many other ways to crunch the numbers (year to year, for example). But Ornstein says he prefers it because it captures the reality of staffers leaving official duties to work in campaign roles.

Of course, neither data strategy really gets at the underlying issue of discrimination in pay toward men and women, as the numbers are averages of everyone’s pay over time. They don’t show whether women were paid less than men for doing the same work.

The 77-cent statistic

The "doing the same work" line has tripped up some politicians in the past as they have tried to describe the 77-cent statistic, notably President Barack Obama.

During the 2012 campaign, Obama released a misleading ad that said, "Women (are) paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men."

The claim rates Mostly False. The Obama campaign cites a U.S. Census Bureau statistic showing average pay for men and women, but this number does not take into account the type of job, hours worked or length of tenure. In other words, it does not describe the wage gap when "doing the same work as men."

Obama cast the statistic in a more accurate light in his 2014 State of the Union address: "You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment.

This time his claim rated Mostly True, as the Census Bureau figure is credible when presented as an average. However, the gap is not necessarily due to discrimination, and other calculations show a smaller overall wage gap.

Pay gap at the White House?

Before she entered the presidential race, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina attacked Obama along the same lines as Hannity on Clinton for overseeing unequal pay in the White House.

"I am struck by the fact the president hasn't really led in this regard," Fiorina said in January. "He's not paying women equally by his own measures in his own White House."

Her attack fell flat. We rated it Mostly False. Salary data for White House employees show a gap in average pay for men and women, but when job titles are similar, the pay tends to be the same as well. (In some categories, women of the White House out-performed men in terms of pay for the same job.)