How to repeal the minimum wage without really trying

Given the circumstances then, the Washington Post editorial board’s recent proposal for a so-called “grand bargain” to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour (about $15,000 a year for a full-time worker) to just $8.00 per hour might seem better than nothing. While this plan remains a far cry from the increase to $10.10 per hour that Senate and House Democrats proposed earlier this year, it’s still marginally better than the status quo favored by Congressional Republicans, which is to do nothing.

Except there’s one problem: Republicans in Congress aren’t just opposed to raising the minimum wage– they are opposed to the minimum wage itself, period. And as a result, even the pitiful increase proposed by the Washington Post editorial board would not, in the minds of these legislators, count as a compromise.  It would be a defeat, and we’re all seeing now how some members of Congress deal with defeat.

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Case in point: the morning after President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage in this year’s State of the Union address, Sen. Marc Rubio (R-Fla.) declared, without much nuance, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.” Rubio wasn’t defending the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, or explaining why now is not the time for it to be raised. He was rejecting the idea of the minimum wage itself.

Consider an even more pointed example: in a U.S. Senate hearing last June – held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the very statute that established the federal minimum wage – Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) actually interrupted a witness in order to waste no time expressing his opposition to the minimum wage, stating “Let me jump in. I do not believe in it.” Some commemoration.

This interjection prompted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a fellow committee member, to attempt a clarification, asking, “You would abolish the minimum wage?” Alexander, clearing away any doubt about his position, responded: “Correct.”

Even the rationale offered by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this year – that a higher minimum wage would force employers to reduce hiring – at its core amounts to yet another rejection of the existence of the minimum wage. If you believe that America’s lowest-paid workers – the majority of whom are women, and many being workers of color – are really worth so little that their best hope for a job is one that pays poverty-level wages, then according to that logic, why risk establishing any minimum wage in the first place?

So rather than looking at years of gridlock over the minimum wage as simply the consequence of disagreement over the appropriate size of an increase, we should instead recognize this pattern of obstruction for what it is: a tactic for effectively repealing the minimum wage, at an incremental pace, by allowing the rising cost of living to steadily chip away at its real value over time.   Consider this – had the minimum wage simply kept pace with inflation over the last 40 years, it would be more than $10.70 per hour today.  But decades of Congressional inaction have let its real value decline each year – over the last 30 years, Congress has only acted three times to raise the minimum wage.   And that’s when Congress was semi-functional.

Despite the radical position that Republicans in Congress take toward the minimum wage, there’s a silver lining that is important to remember: Republican voters themselves actually support raising the minimum wage by substantial margins. Years of polling bear this out: most recently, a July poll showed that 62 percent of Republican voters support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and indexing it to rise with the cost of living. Even self-identified Tea Party voters support raising the minimum wage to at least $10 per hour, according to a poll of Maryland voters from 2010.

Rather than rushing to offer a watered-down proposal, for no other reason than the misguided belief that it would attract support from members of Congress who would just as soon repeal the minimum wage altogether, let Congressional Republicans vote on a meaningful increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, which would boost incomes formore than twice as many low-paid workers as a weaker increase to only $8.00 per hour.

And if the pattern of gridlock, obstruction, and delay continues, let Congressional Republicans explain why to their constituents when they ask for their votes next November. Once they do, the chances for Congressional action on this long overdue priority may begin improving faster than expected.

Temple is a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.