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Monday, December 5, 2016

As Congress considers raising the minimum wage for the first time since 2009, Democrats have a golden political opportunity to pressure congressional Republicans on an issue that splits the GOP’s base — and highlights the GOP’s worst qualities.

The battle is currently being led by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who have crafted a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, up from the current level of $7.25. The bill, titled the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, would immediately raise the minimum wage to $8.20 an hour, then to $9.15 an hour after one year, $10.10 an hour after two years, and tie it to the Consumer Price Index thereafter.

There is a litany of evidence backing up the value of such a proposal. The current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has lagged far behind productivity growth over the past decades, and falls short of most living wage standards. A worker employed full-time at the current minimum wage would make $15,080 for a full 52-week year, 19 percent below the poverty line for a family of three. As over 100 economists agreed in a June 2013 letter supporting a $10.50 hourly minimum wage, raising the wage “will be an effective means of improving living standards for low-wage workers and their families and will help stabilize the economy. The costs to other groups in society will be modest and readily absorbed.”

Opponents of raising the minimum wage generally argue that such a policy would hurt job growth. “When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) declared in response to President Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage at his 2013 State of the Union address. Contrary to the Speaker’s claim, however, there is little to no evidence that modest increases in the minimum wage actually eliminate jobs.

As strong as the economic case for raising the minimum wage is, however, the political case is even more persuasive. The Harkin-Miller bill has almost no chance of becoming law during the 113th Congress; it will almost certainly be blocked in the Senate, and even if Democratic leadership can round up 60 votes, the bill stands no chance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But the GOP could pay a steep price for killing the measure.

Americans strongly favor raising the minimum wage. According to a Hart Research Associates poll conducted in July, an overwhelming 80 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10, then adjusting it for the cost of living, as the Harkin-Miller plan proposes. The basic parameters of the bill are supported by 92 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and even 62 percent of Republicans.

The poll also suggests that the issue could prove critical in the 2014 midterms. The Hart poll found that 74 percent of registered voters believe that raising the minimum wage in the next year should be an important priority for Congress, and 38 believe it is very important — 51 percent of registered voters would be more likely to support a candidate for Congress who favored raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while just 15 percent said they would be less likely. Furthermore, 37 percent believe that — should Congress fail to raise the minimum wage this year — Republicans would be to blame. Just 15 percent would blame the Democrats.

In the wake of the Republican Party’s disastrous government shutdown strategy, it finds itself in a very precarious political position — especially on the critical question of whether they are actually interested in what’s best for the country. A high-profile act of obstruction to block a minimum-wage hike — a raise that is supported by four-fifths of Americans, and almost two-thirds of Republicans — would surely compound that problem. If Democrats want to paint congressional Republicans as elitists who are out of step with the needs of average Americans, this is how they do it.

On Friday, the Obama administration signaled its support for the Harkin-Miller bill, and it would be wise to be very vocal about that position. If the White House throws its full weight behind congressional Democrats’ efforts, then the minimum wage could form the backbone of an effective economic pitch for the 2014 midterms.

Photo: Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights via Flickr

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