TWO HOUSE REPUBLICANS, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), have introduced legislation that would override Initiative 77, the District ballot measure raising restaurant servers’ pay that passed in the June 19 primary election. Mr. Meadows and Mr. Palmer should bow out, for two reasons. First, Congress needs to respect home rule in the nation’s capital, as well as the political processes that go along with it. Second, local officials appear ready, willing and able to stop Initiative 77 from taking effect without intervention from Capitol Hill. A majority of the D.C. Council’s members have supported a bill that would block it.
On balance, we think that’s in the public interest. We might feel differently if Initiative 77 had been approved in a general election. As it happens, though, the measure passed with 47,230 votes out of nearly 85,000 cast in the primary; there are nearly 480,000 registered voters in the city. That’s hardly a mandate. And the council members have their own independent electoral bases and the democratic legitimacy that goes with that. The home-rule charter fully empowers them to alter or eliminate Initiative 77, as they would any other statute.
Revisiting the initiative would be good policy, because it was a solution in search of a problem. It imposes a rough quadrupling in labor costs on the city’s restaurants, most of them small businesses, even though it’s not evident that the current compensation structure creates undue hardship for the workers affected, many of whom opposed Initiative 77.
Under current law, restaurants may pay servers who receive tips a lower minimum wage than, say, dishwashers get; this so-called tipped minimum will be $3.89 per hour as of July 1. This would rise under Initiative 77 to $15 by 2025. At present, though, employers may not lawfully pay less than the full minimum ($13.25 on July 1). It’s just that employers do not have to make up the difference so long as tips do. No doubt, ending the so-called tipped minimum would stabilize the income flow for some working families and free some tip-dependent servers from putting up with sexual harassment and other forms of customer abuse. However, many workers protest that they’d take a pay cut under Initiative 77, either because customers would tip less to offset the higher menu prices or because restaurant owners would substitute a mandatory service charge, which, unlike tips, D.C. law allows them to distribute to other workers as well as servers.
At the same time, many workers will see reduced hours or lose jobs; certain restaurants won’t get started at all, if they can be launched in Maryland or Virginia, which won’t have a rule like Initiative 77.
Yes, some council opponents of Initiative 77 might be contradicting majorities in their wards who voted for it — just as Ward 3’s Mary M. Cheh supports the measure against the wishes of a majority of her constituents. The truth is, though, that members of the council are elected not to consider issues in isolation, but to exercise their best judgment on how various proposals fit into overall goals for the city’s economy.