House ”Blue Dog” Democrats position themselves as a voice of reason, promising “commonsense” alternatives to the party’s more progressive members. But if Blue Dogs cave in and support a $15 federal minimum wage that will eliminate up to 3.7 million jobs, it suggests the coalition’s promise is more rhetoric than reality.
After Democrats re-took control of the House in 2018, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said a $15 minimum wage was one of the party’s top labor priorities. There’s little debate that $15 is an unprecedented proposal; it’s roughly double the inflation-adjusted historic federal minimum wage. Supporters have called the $15 demand “bold,” while critics have described it as “extreme.”
Scott expressed confidence that his $15 bill would see a floor vote early in 2019. Behind the scenes, the issue was considerably more controversial. The caucus’ moderate members scoffed at setting a minimum wage out-of-touch with regional cost-of-living differences. Even non-Blue Dogs had reservations. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) put it this way: “I don’t think $15 is some magical number. … If it really does not harm, then why not $25 an hour?”
Sewell’s concern about “adverse effects” led her to introduce a tiered minimum wage bill, where $15 would phase in more slowly in regions with a lower cost of living. Sewell’s bill remained radical in its end goals — among other changes, the bill would increase the tipped minimum wage by more than 600 percent — but it still drew widespread condemnation from the party’s left-flank, who deemed it insufficiently progressive.
Fast forward three months: Rep. Scott’s $15 wage demand remains the same, but now many Blue Dogs say they’ll vote for his bill when it comes to the floor Thursday.
What’s changed? Certainly not the evidence on $15. A new study from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office finds that $15 will eliminate up to 3.7 million jobs, and cause a net reduction of family income of $9 billion. The CBO tossed cold water on promises of broad economic benefits for less-experienced workers, finding each worker pulled out of poverty would be offset by as many as three jobs lost. According to a new JCN/ScottRasmussen.com poll, 54 percent of the public thinks it’s a bad trade.
More likely, the Blue Dogs’ shift has to do with the political calendar. The “bold leadership” promised on the coalition’s website has been replaced by more conventional political considerations, with members in swing districts needing union money for their 2020 reelection. Instead of putting their seats at risk, these Democrats — however well-intentioned — are putting the small businesses in their districts at risk.
Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) offered an amendment to ease his Blue Dog colleagues’ concerns, whereby the Government Accountability Office (GAO) would be required to study the effects of the law a few years after implementation. Call it the autopsy amendment; the Blue Dogs won’t keep businesses from closing, but they’re happy to count the cost after the fact.
American Samoa knows better than most how meaningless these GAO studies can be. In 2014, the GAO found that a rising minimum wage in the territory was associated with a shocking 58 percent reduction in tuna-canning employment. Despite the immense human toll of Congress imposing a minimum wage out-of-sync with American Samoa’s cost of living, the GAO’s conclusions only led to minor changes in the law. The minimum wage in the territory is still increasing.
In March, Rep. Scott dismissed the conclusions of any future GAO report that might show job loss. Explaining his opposition to a proposed amendment to his bill, Scott said: “This amendment [to require a GAO report] suggests that there will be job loss. All the studies show otherwise.” Scott’s statement is incorrect — most studies in fact show the opposite — but it’s demonstrative of how toothless the GAO amendment would be.
If the Blue Dog Democrats choose to set aside their moderate principles and vote for a $15 minimum wage — -despite the economic cost to businesses and employees in their districts — they should do their constituents the courtesy of dropping the “pragmatic” label on their website.
Michael Saltsman is Managing Director at the Employment Policies Institute, which receives support from businesses, foundations and individuals.
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