Can Obama Unilaterally Raise the Minimum Wage?

That’s what progressives in Congress are demanding, while Republicans not only oppose a boost, some want repeal.

Fast food workers and their supporters gather for a nationwide strike outside a McDonald's fastfood outlet demanding higher wages and the right to form a union on August 29, 2013 in Los Angeles, California, where the fast food restaurant workers were calling for a $15.00 per hour wage. 
National Journal
Ben Terris
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Ben Terris
Dec. 5, 2013, midnight

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.

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