November 10, 2013

YOU WOULD would think that before the D.C. Council settles on a new minimum wage, it would want to understand some important issues. How many D.C. residents would be affected? At what level might a higher minimum wage harm the working poor by rendering them ineligible for certain public assistance? At what point could an increase discourage employers from locating in the District?

What unfortunately seems to be of most interest to council members rushing toward a decision is claiming political credit in advance of next year’s elections.

In the wake of the city’s polarizing debate over a bill (thankfully vetoed) that would have forced Wal-Mart and other large retailers to pay a super-minimum wage, consensus has seemed to emerge over the need for a citywide increase in the current minimum. In his veto of the Wal-Mart bill, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said he looked forward to working with the council to pass “a reasonable increase.”

Mr. Gray is commissioning a study to guide decisions in any adjustment of the rate. Council members don’t want to wait. Four competing proposals have been filed, with the most generous calling for a wage of $12.50 an hour. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who favors a compromise that would see an increase over three years to $11.50 and then tie it to inflation, told us he doesn’t know what purpose would be served by more study. He said analysis already done by the council has produced answers.

The District’s current rate of $8.25 is a dollar more than the federal minimum; neighboring Virginia and Maryland use the federal minimum, but discussions are underway in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties to increase their minimums. Officials in these two Maryland counties seem divided over whether they would want to participate in a regional effort with the District or perhaps wait for the General Assembly to enact statewide legislation.

The best solution would be for Congress to agree to the president’s proposal to increase the federal minimum and then adjust for inflation. With that unlikely to happen, it becomes more urgent that local jurisdictions, such as the District, take care in how they lift wages so as to produce the most benefit and do the least harm. The independent study Mr. Gray plans could help in that effort.

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