Progressives are starting to worry that President Obama may be more talk than walk when it comes to raising the minimum wage. Again, on Wednesday, the president said, "It's well past the time to raise a minimum wage that, in real terms right now, is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office."
Well, progressives say, there's a whole group of low-wage workers that he can fix this for, just with the stroke of a pen. The chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, wrote a letter that urges the president to circumvent Congress and sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage for workers employed through federal government contracts with private companies. This letter comes months after 49 members of the CPC requested the same thing from the president, only to hear radio silence about it from the White House.
"It's frustrating," says Ellison, who hand-delivered the letter to the president after his speech Wednesday. "We know his heart is in the right place and he wants to do something, and this is something he can do."
It's especially frustrating for Ellison and his caucus considering there is no chance such a measure could pass the Republican-held House and that Obama said months ago that he would use "whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class."
In this case, when you take all of the people this could affect—from folks who sew military uniforms to the men and women cleaning up after tourists at the Smithsonian or Union Station, to workers at the National Zoo—it adds up.
According to a report from the progressive think tank Demos, there were nearly 2 million private sector workers funded by public dollars (from direct federal contracts as well as federal health care spending, loans through the Small Business Administration, infrastructure grants, and janitors cleaning federal buildings leased from private companies) making less than $12 an hour in 2012.
That's more than the number of people working at Walmart and McDonalds combined.
Luis Chiliquinga, who works at a McDonalds at the Air and Space Museum for $8.32 an hour, is one of these people. He says that the amount of money he makes in a month, he could easily spend in a day.
"It's a shame to have to admit this, but I have to rely on charity and help from family members, including some of my kids who don't earn much more than I do, but they help me pay for the basics, like rent and food," he said, noting that he will be taking part in a protest outside of the museum Thursday. "That's how I make it."
Chiliquinga says its morally right for Obama to sign an executive order so that wealthy companies like McDonalds cannot take advantage of their workforce.
And it's not as if there isn't some kind of precedent for something like this to happen. In 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order arming the secretary of Labor with enforcement authority to ensure equal opportunities for minorities in federal contractors' recruitment, hiring, and training.
Republican lawmakers likely won't see this as justification to raise the minimum wage.
"I have this intense concern that this president is chewing up the Constitution by the excessive use of what he believes is presidential authority," said Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz.
It's particularly unpalatable for Republicans, as the majority of them oppose to raising the minimum wage at all. "I think it's outlived its usefulness," said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas. "It may have been of some value back in the Great Depression. I would vote to repeal the minimum wage."
So yes, if Obama were to use his executive authority to raise the minimum wage for anyone, there would be Republican anger. But some progressives point out that wouldn't be any different from a normal day.
"They don't appreciate anything the president does anyway, so I don't think he'd be losing much from them," said Ellison.