Skip to content

Minimum Wage Vote Loss Gives Democrats Their Wedge Issue

Senate Democrats are lambasting congressional Republicans on the minimum wage, just in time for the midterm elections. (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.