A telling battle is brewing in Congress — the haves, the have-nots and the wanna-haves are squaring off.
It’s that time of year when lawmakers realize they must raise their pay if they are to get an increase next year. If they wait until later this year, voters will be angry (one-third of the Senate and the entire House are up for re-election in November).
Members now make $168,500 a year. Cleverly, they don’t actually vote to increase their pay _ they merely have to do nothing, and a 2 percent raise goes into effect automatically. The House already has passively approved to raise its pay; the Senate wants to follow suit.
But Democrats, who have been stumbling in the dark looking for an issue to use against Republicans this November besides the war in Iraq, on which there is no unanimity, have rediscovered the minimum wage. It has been $5.15 an hour for nine years, meaning that millions of families work all year long and their wages still fall well below the official government poverty level.
Democrats have put a minimum-wage increase on state ballots and are suggesting that a federal increase to $7.25 an hour is needed _ or lawmakers shouldn’t get their raise.
Nervous Republicans are starting to break ranks _ the White House opposes a hike in the minimum wage and so does the GOP congressional leadership. The argument against raising the minimum wage is that employers will curtail hiring low-income workers. President Bush argues that tax cuts are a better way to raise all boats. Opposing a federally mandated increase in the minimum wage, he says the country needs a wage policy that does not “price people out of jobs.”
But armed with information from the Economic Policy Institute, which is battling for $7.25 an hour by 2008 for workers, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Democrats think that they finally might have a chance this year to raise the minimum wage _ and get the attention of voters.
The data indicate that nearly 15 million people would benefit from raising the minimum wage, including 1.4 million single parents. Because their wages haven’t been raised since 1997, minimum-wage workers have taken a 20 percent cut in pay since then. Put another way, adjusted for inflation, the minimum-wage worker has the lowest buying power she’s had in 51 years. (Sixty-five percent of minimum-wage workers are women.)
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a possible presidential contender in 2008 who is traveling the country trying to promote Democratic candidates this fall, notes that lawmakers in the last nine years have raised their own salaries by $31,600.
At a press conference a few days ago, she argued that a minimum-wage job of 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year pays $10,700, or $4,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., insisted, “Americans believe that if you work hard, play by the rules, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty in the richest nation of the Earth. All Americans believe that a job ought to be the opportunity to get you out of poverty rather than keep you in poverty, and the minimum-wage workers are the only ones that are virtually being kept in poverty.”
The average pay of a CEO in this country, Kennedy said, has gone up 73 percent in the last five years. If the minimum wage went up at that rate, the hourly wage now would be $8.34, not $5.15.
Yet another Northeastern liberal, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., conceded that the gambit of linking a congressional pay raise to the minimum wage might not work. “Will it work? Who knows? But nothing has worked so far, and for nine years people who are struggling get no help as inflation goes up, as gasoline goes up, as everything goes up. And so we’re doing this, yes, out of frustration, but also out of conviction, out of conviction that Congress should not get a raise until it raises the minimum wage.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said, “The same Republicans who believe it’s fair for an oil executive to make $84 million in one year believe it’s a sin to pay $7.25 an hour to the gas-station attendant who pumps that gas.”
Legislative high jinks no doubt will be employed by both sides in this struggle. But this is not an unresolved issue that will play out over the years. Within two months we’ll know what happens _ either Congress will get its pay raise and give workers a minimum-wage increase, or Congress will get its raise and deny workers an increase, or nobody will get a raise.
Come November, this will be yet another issue that will help voters decide which candidates to support.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)