December 30, 2013

The New York Times reported this morning (echoing the reporting of Greg Sargent and others earlier this year) that Democrats plan to campaign on raising the minimum wage during the election season.  Aside from being good economic policy, raising the minimum wage is quite popular, even among moderates and conservatives. Democrats also hope it shows the party is focused on improving the economic fortunes of Americans and not getting bogged down in Beltway bickering.

It’s a terrific idea. And there’s one way President Obama can show he takes the issue seriously: by issuing an executive order raising the minimum wage for 2 million federal contractors. This, too, is good policy, and the president is likely to get significant pressure from his left flank to do so.

Barack Obama (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
President Barack Obama (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

More than half a million employees of federal contractors make less than $12 an hour, according to a study by the progressive think tank Demos.  When the National Employment Law Project interviewed more than 500 federal contract workers who work in service-industry type jobs, sew military uniforms and drive trucks, more than 70 percent made less than $10 an hour.

Progressives have been pushing the president for years to issue an executive order that would require federal agencies to give contracting preference to contractors that pay at least $10.10 an hour. This is something advocates argue the president can do without consulting Congress, and they point to similar executive orders by presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who raised federal labor standards in regards to equal opportunity and nondiscrimination.

Every good argument for raising the federal minimum wage exists here: The existing minimum wage is inadequate and exploitative, and the fact these workers are doing work for, and being paid by, U.S. taxpayers makes it all the more troublesome. The economic lots of federal contract workers would be improved, and more money would end up going into the economy.

So why not do it? The White House has suggested in the past that it prefers to address this legislatively and not by executive order. But it ought to consider it more closely.

Aside from the obvious benefit to workers and the economy, it could help present a unified Democratic front on the minimum wage. This year 15 senators and 50 members of the House, all Democrats, sent Obama a letter urging him to issue the order. Those efforts are likely to intensify this coming year and will be harder for the White House to ignore as Obama hits the campaign trail demanding a federal minimum-wage hike.

By not issuing the order, Obama would create tension in his caucus and leave Republicans with a great talking point: If Obama really thinks a minimum-wage hike in necessary, why isn’t he putting his money where his mouth is?