Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 7, 2016

Minimum Wage Vote Loss Gives Democrats Their Wedge Issue

Senate Democrats are going after Republicans on the minimum wage, just in time for the midterms. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats are lambasting congressional Republicans on the minimum wage, just in time for the midterm elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Long before Wednesday’s totally predictable Senate vote blocking a bill to increase the minimum wage, President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress had embraced their guaranteed consolation prize.

It’s a construct as venerable as the Capitol itself: They will not have the bill, but they are plenty satisfied to have the issue.

In fact, especially if some sunshine newly cast on policy deliberations in the Clinton administration can be considered instructive, the Democrats may have gotten just what they wanted all along from one of the first big show votes of the campaign season.

“This is all about politics,” Minority Whip John Cornyn declared before the Senate came up five votes short of advancing the minimum wage legislation beyond a GOP filibuster. “This is about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hard-hearted.”

To support that assertion, the Texas Republican introduced into the record a document that his side views as powerful past-is-prologue evidence, unearthed from an avalanche of papers created in Bill Clinton’s White House and being released this year by the National Archives. It’s a January 1998 memo to the president about that year’s minimum wage debate. The author was Gene Sperling, who then ran the National Economic Council. Sperling, of course, returned to that job during the Obama administration, leading the NEC for three years ending this March, as Obama’s own minimum wage goals were evolving.

Last year, Obama proposed a straightforward 24 percent increase in the federally guaranteed hourly wage floor, to $9 from the $7.25 in effect since 2009. When Congress turned a frigid shoulder to that idea, the president decided he had nothing to lose strategically, and something to gain politically, by raising his bid. In the most recent State of the Union speech, he called for a 39 percent increase over 30 months, to $10.10, and something more as well, language creating a perpetual, routine increase by changing the amount annually based on the overall cost of living.

Advocates of such indexing say it’s an essential curative so laborers won’t continue to suffer in times when Republicans and their business allies have some control in Washington. In other words, disconnected from the legislative process, the wage would no longer lose its value during long stretches of congressional gridlock.

Viewed another way, if Obama actually got what he’s now asking for, he would be surrendering a political cudgel that he’ll now be able to wield against GOP House and Senate candidates for the next six months. He’d also be taking it away from any Democratic successor who might otherwise benefit from one of the party’s handier wedge issues.

That was the exact political reality Sperling described back in 1998. (When the archives surfaced, Huffington Post took note of the memo’s current relevance.)

At the time, Senate Democrats were starting an uphill push for a minimum wage increase quite similar to this year’s version: a 40 percent hike over a couple of years, with inflation adjustments after that.

The indexing concept is a bad one, the economic policy czar wrote, partly for this reason: “Since the minimum wage would automatically rise each year, it would take away a good political issue for those who believe the minimum wage is an important tool to help low-income families.”

He argued the president should oppose such a hefty raise in part because it could prompt businesses to reduce payrolls — the main policy argument of the Republicans, both then and now. (They currently point to a Congressional Budget Office estimate that a $10.10 wage would have the effect of eliminating about 500,000 jobs, albeit while boosting the incomes of 16.5 million others.)

Little evidence suggests Sperling altered his fundamental views, economic or political, between his two tours of duty. So such candor from the files only strengthens the perception that Obama’s 2014 legislative agenda was designed without a goal of actually achieving his stated objectives.

Obama and the Democrats have not opened the door to negotiating for a smaller increase in the wage, despite signals of openness from a potentially pivotal handful of Republicans.

Wednesday’s final Senate tally was 54-42. Bob Corker of Tennessee was the only Republican voting to advance the bill. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, in one of the year’s toughest re-election races, was the only Democrat who missed the vote. (He was touring tornado damage back home.) Majority Leader Harry Reid switched from “yes” to “no” to preserve his ability to call for a do-over roll call closer to Election Day. Nearly blanket GOP opposition means there won’t be any sort of a House vote this year, no matter what.

And the president, at an East Room pep rally arranged long before the foreordained vote, signaled he was OK with that — and made plain the reason.

“If there’s any good news here, it’s that Republicans in Congress don’t get the last word on this or any issue. You do, the American people, the voters,” he said to charged applause. “So my message to the American people is this: Do not get discouraged by a vote like the one we saw this morning. Get fired up, get organized.”

Laws to change the wage have been enacted just once in each of the past three decades. The current $7.25 has lost more than $1 of its inflation-adjusted buying power since taking effect five years ago. Thanks to something akin to an unholy bipartisan alliance, both those trends have a strong shot at continuing.

  • Andre Leonard

    Putting the partisan bickering aside for a moment. If the country cannot provide enough jobs at the current minimum wage. What makes anyone believe that raising the minimum wage will help 27 million jobless find jobs?

    • Democrats_kill_babies

      The dems are the same political party that is flooding the tight job market with illegal aliens.

      • Andre Leonard

        I think your screen name pretty much say all we need to know.

        Fact is, both party’s allow and condone our current 15 million illegal immigrants to wander the country.

        Are you sure your not one of the trolls listed in the link provided?

        • Democrats_kill_babies

          well sweet boy. which administration has relaxed all the laws to allow illegals to stay in the country? Hint the first letter is D.

          • Andre Leonard

            I think your screen name pretty much say all we need to know.

            Fact is, both party’s allow and condone our current 15 million illegal immigrants to wander the country.

            Are you sure your not one of the trolls listed in the link provided?


          • Democrats_kill_babies

            go sell your liberal slop some where else.

          • Farrakhan4u

            says the right wing troll

          • Andre Leonard

            Ignore him. There is a group of people who only come here to create a distracting noise to take away from the issue. There job is to confuse any rational debate by promoting the donkey versus elephant agenda.

            No rhyme or reason required. Just buffalo chips.

          • Democrats_kill_babies

            I just crushed you finger.

    • Layla

      Spot on, Andre. Raise the minimum wage and those at McDonald’s will begin losing jobs to pay for the others.

      Did these people go to school under Common Core?

      • Andre Leonard

        Yep, they we’re all social promotions. These are the same folks who believe you can spend your way out of debt too.

        Good to know your bearing witness to this too Layla.. Good day!

    • Stephen Barlow

      27 millon is a Hannity/Beck #. How many NEW HOME BUSINESSES were licensed and launched in the last 3 years?

      Without investing in JOB TRAINING, how are Republicans going to ‘create’ jobs by cuting taxes for 2% of Americans?

      The ANSWER is an AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) of 12% (what Romney pays annually) ON ALL BUSINESSES that make over $1 Million in profits.

      It takes all the Exxon Subsidies BACK and will repay the national Debt in 6 years. All 17 Trillion of it.

      12% of the Gross profits of the Fortune 500 or the S&P 500 companies is what? The end of the debt and deficit issue for all time.

      NOW!!! what is 12% of all the Registered publicly traded Corporations, all the LLC’s and Partnerships (law firms and doctors and accountant OH MY!!!) and all the major league sports monopolies. 5 times that.

      If you tax the churches involved in political issues, you can feed the hungry and house the homeless.

      If you make business pay their fair share of the cost of the society they do business in (like taxing non benefit companies for the cost of healthcare, and POVERTY WAGE employers for all the employees on food stamps) then the rich can have their tax cuts… AFTER THE MIDDLE CLASS get’s 50% off.

    • Stephen Barlow

      What makes you think one has anything to do with the other? David Gregory, Chris Wallace or Bill O’Reilly?

      At least you’re not trying to sell the LIE that raising the POVERTY WAGE will get people FIRED.

  • Alfred Neuman

    We know entry level workers don’t understand that raising the minimum wage kills jobs. So that’s why we’re gonna push for an increase anyway. We’re democrats, we exploit the ignorant. Who else would vote for us?

  • Layla

    What the country cannot afford is higher prices on goods and that is exactly what raising the minimum wage will produce. These jobs were only meant to be entry level. I don’t think Americans are going to support a raise at this time. How long is it going to take Congress to admit you’ve screwed our economy and that the American people are barely making it? We don’t need more minimum wage jobs, we need jobs paying what we lost. The Democrats will never budge on this and the GOP know the only way to get the jobs back is to give business back their tax breaks as an incentive to hire. The people now can see this as well. This administration is literally choking the life out of this country and our economy and Congress is allowing it.

  • Stephen Barlow

    We need to change to rhetoric. minimum wage = POVERTY WAGE!!!!

    it’s THAT simple. Like Pro lifers are not BABY KILLERS. Even if a fetus is not viable, they sell it as a BABY. Even if they will NEVER FEED CLOTHE OR HOUSE IT, it’sstill a BABY in the womb to them.

    We need to dell the POVERTY WAGE to the voters.

    As opposed to “28 million people will benefit from a minimum wage hike.”

    we need to sell it as:

    “The Republicans are AGAINST giving single working mother’s a step up to POVERTY WAGE to feed clothe and house their children with.”

  • GimmeMyFreeStoff

    Racism, sexism, classism……the three legs of the democrat platform.

    • chillinout.

      You’re thinking of the republican party platform. Silly unintelligent conservative

  • califconserv

    Why does Oregon with it’s $9.60 minimum wage lead the nation in federal food stamp subsidy? Why do the three states at the bottom of unemployment statistics have minimum wage rates above the current national standard? Why do three states in the top ten of employment have a minimum wage rate under the minimum national standard? How long did it take for inflation to eliminate the gains made by the poor with the last minimum wage increase and the one before? What affect on federal employees will be a $10.10 minimum wage? Do they even get minimum wage since most are unionized? Are most now getting $10 so the real increase is .10 of a dollar?

  • Iloveamerica

    If you want a raise, you can have your raise. Hahahahahahahaha. If you liberals really believe that? Sheeple. How does the saying go? If you fool me once, shame on you. If you fool me twice, shame on me. Well, shame on you.

  • tpaine1

    Well, of course, let’s vote for $15/hr minimum wage and lose 500,000 “entry level” jobs. Makes total sense. “Low info” young and minority voters are voting on emotion anyway. Good plan for the Democrats.
    Oh yeah, don’t forget the Koch Brothers gave $330,000 to the Democrat Party as well the GOP. Let’s make this a “class envy” race.

  • York Aptain Sidney Field

    If today’s liberals will callously murder the unborn, who won’t they attack?

  • Bozeman

    I think we can all agree that today’s liberalism is a foreign ideology that has a great deal in common with its marxist, socialist, and communist ancestors.




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