When an economic issue makes headlines, you can usually count on Congress to respond, more often than not with an over-reach that creates more problems than it solves (think Sarbanes-Oxley or the recent housing bailout bill). Today is a rare moment when Congress has the potential to meaningfully address a real economic problem – rising energy prices – with sensible legislation to allow more drilling to increase energy supplies. So what has Congress slated for consideration this week? The Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that is the equivalent of throwing sand into the wheels of our economic machine.

Underlying the bill are the assumptions that our workplace is systematically hostile to women and that existing laws don’t provide enough protection for women. As committee chairman George Miller (D., Calif.) said when celebrating the passage of the bill out of his committee: “This is a historic day in the fight for equal rights for women. If we are serious about closing the gender pay gap, we must get serious about punishing those who would otherwise scoff at the weak sanctions under current law.”

The committee’s press release, like essentially every public statement supporting expanded “equal pay” laws, cites the statistic that women earn just 77 percent of men’s earnings. This “wage gap” is considered proof that the work world’s deck is still stacked against women and government needs to do more to make sure that everyone plays fair.

Yet a statistic that simply compares the wages of the median full-time working man and the full-time working woman tells us nothing about the existence (or lack thereof) of systematic wage discrimination. Many factors contribute to how much one earns, from occupation and area of specialty to education and years of experience. Not surprisingly, once those factors are taken into account, the wage gap shrinks.

Men tend to take jobs that are dirtier, more dangerous, and distasteful than those performed by women. Overwhelmingly, men are the ones working in our sewers, guarding our prisons, laying concrete in the scorching sun, and catching and gutting our fish. They work more graveyard shifts and longer hours, in fact, the Department of Labor estimates that even full-time working women spend about a half an hour less each day on the job than men do. Women disproportionately work indoors, in safe, climate controlled buildings, with regular, or even flexible, hours. More people are interested in working in libraries and school buildings than on the fishing boats featured in Deadliest Catch, which is why physically strenuous, dangerous jobs pay higher salaries.

Feminist activists tend to be frustrated with this analysis, and the explanation that the market (not nefarious men) is primarily responsible for women earning less. They don’t think it’s fair that jobs that require an education, like social work or teaching, are less valued in the marketplace than positions in trucking and sanitation work that require only characteristics like stamina and a high tolerance for filth.

They’ve long championed policies, dubbed as “comparable worth,” that would give government officials the power to supersede the market to make sure that women’s contributions aren’t undervalued. The Paycheck Fairness Act takes steps in that direction. The Department of Labor would issue “guidelines” that compare the wages of different jobs to give employers a sense of what is considered “fair.” The guidelines may not have the force of law (yet) but certainly would be a powerful specter hanging over employers seeking to avoid costly litigation.

And employers would have additional reason to fear that they would be targets for litigation if the Paycheck Fairness Act becomes law. This bill would subject employers to unlimited compensatory and punitive damages, even for unintentional pay disparities, creating potential paydays certain to inspire trail lawyers to action. The bill would also strip employers of the ability to defend differences in pay as based on factors other than sex, such as experience and performance, leaving courts to dictate what constitutes a legitimate pay structure.

Of course, no congressional legislation would complete without a healthy serving of waste, and the Paycheck Fairness Act doesn’t disappoint. It would create a new grant program to instruct women on salary negotiation tactics and require the Department of Labor to train employers in strategies for eliminating pay disparities. It seems almost quaint to ask, but where in the Constitution is Congress granted the power to engage in this type of activity? Taxpayers should be outraged that their money is being put to such use.

Federal law already outlaws sex discrimination. This legislation would afford women few new protections against actual sex discrimination, but would raise the cost of employment and discourage workplace flexibility. It is exactly what women – and the economy – don’t need. If this is what we can expect from the rest of this Congress, Americans should hope for an early recess.

– Carrie Lukas is the vice president of Independent Women’s Voice and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.