Loveland Reporter-Herald

Firing the referee won’t win the fight for $15

- Catherine Rampell Washington Post

Fire the referee! Tear up the rule book! Destroy ever y annoying procedural barrier so that Democrats can, at long last, deliver a nationwide $15-per-hour minimum wage!

So proclaim some loud voices on the left, in the wake of the Senate parliament­arian’s ruling that a minimum-wage increase cannot be included in the covid19 relief bill that Democrats plan to pass through reconcilia­tion. This procedural process, which allows passage with a simple majority and no threat of filibuster, is reser ved for budget-related legislatio­n; a minimum-wage hike doesn’t qualify, the parliament­arian, Elizabeth Macdonough, decreed.

Some Democrats have vilified Macdonough. But, in a sense, she did the party a favor by allowing it to avoid an ugly intra-caucus fight. After all, the primar y hurdle to passing a $15 federal minimum wage isn’t procedural. It’s that there isn’t unified support within the Democratic Party for the policy.

Already at least two Democratic senators have signaled reser vations. This means that even if the parliament­arian had allowed the provision to remain, or even if Dems nuked the filibuster and could more easily pass any bill with a simple majority, a $15 federal minimum wage probably still wouldn’t receive enough votes to become law.

Firing or overruling the ref won’t help you if your own team can’t decide where the goal posts are.

This has been obvious for a while. Yet Democratic leaders chose to ignore the discord rather than adopt a compromise policy that might be acceptable to moderates — and still achieve, say, 90% of the left’s objectives. Which are, presumably, to raise living standards for as many of the working poor as possible.

Raising the federal hourly minimum wage from $7.25 — where it’s remained since 2009 — is broadly popular among both voters and Democratic lawmakers. There’s disagreeme­nt, though, about what level it should be raised to.

The “Fight for 15” movement, launched in 2012 by fast-food workers with backing from organized labor, cultivated political support for this roundnumbe­red, alliterati­ve goal. The movement has had successes in places such as New York and Seattle, and the left wing of the Democratic Party has worked to expand the minimum to $15 nationwide.

But this policy’s economic and political effects might look different in areas where wages and costs of living are lower. In Mississipp­i, for instance, the most recent data available show that the median wage is $15 per hour. So if implemente­d immediatel­y, a federal minimum at that level would apply to half of the state’s wage-earning workforce.

It’s unclear how employers might react to a large mandated increase. Maybe they’d lay off lots of employees or reduce hours, as opponents of minimum wages generally argue. This would undercut the policy’s goal of helping lowwage workers. Or maybe employers would raise prices. Or demand higher productivi­ty. Or accept lower profits. Or some combinatio­n of all these things.

There are, in short, a lot of margins on which employers might adjust, and economists simply don’t know what will happen. Research on the effects of past minimum-wage increases is all over the place; respected labor economists can’t even agree on how to summarize the existing literature.

It’s also unclear how well past experience­s would map onto today’s unusual economic conditions. Small businesses are struggling with myriad pandemic-related challenges, and some employers are already automating out of existence low-wage jobs that might other wise be subject to a minimum-wage hike.

Democrats from higher-wage states, though, have been reluctant to agree to calibrate the wage floor to local conditions, a modificati­on that would help allay economic (and political) concerns. Perhaps some advocates have fallen so in love with an alliterati­ve slogan that they’re not interested in designing something more politicall­y feasible that would still help millions of low-wage workers. “Fight for a regionally calibrated wage formula!” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

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