Swing-District Dems Abandon Minimum Wage Moderation, Embrace Hike to $15

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April 2, 2021

As House Democrats adjust to their narrow majority, members in swing districts have been pushed to jettison their previous calls for moderation on minimum wage hikes.

Just two years ago, 12 House Democrats cosponsored the PHASE in $15 Wage Act, a bill that called for taking regional factors into account when implementing the minimum wage. Now, half of the original PHASE in $15 Wage Act supporters are cosponsors of the Raise the Wage Act that would implement a nationalized $15 minimum wage.

Rep. Lucy McBath (D., Ga.), who was elected in 2018 as a moderate, argued that a $15 minimum wage would crush Georgia small businesses and said she wanted to see a "geographically different kind of model for raising the minimum wage." She now supports a national $15 minimum wage. Rep. Elaine Luria (D., Va.), also elected in 2018 as a moderate small business owner, said minimum wage increases had to take into account that "different areas of the country have different costs of living." She too now supports the national $15 minimum wage.

The unity behind a $15 minimum wage in the House comes as Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), scramble to figure out a way to pass a minimum wage hike without the required 60 votes. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that such major legislation could not be included in the Senate's massive coronavirus relief package, but Schumer remains determined to find a way to jam it through the upper chamber, according to the Intercept.

Alfredo Ortiz, the president of the Job Creators Network, argued that moderation on wage issues is no longer acceptable in the Democratic ranks, even for members representing districts where a $15 minimum wage would wreak havoc for businesses.

"Big Labor has made the $15 minimum wage a litmus test for Democrat politicians and just about every Democrat has fallen in line," Ortiz said. "Democrats couldn't care less that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a $15 minimum wage could cost up to 2.7 million jobs."

In addition to McBath and Luria, Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (D., Pa.), Scott Peters (D., Calif.), Ami Bera (D., Calif.), Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.), and Kathleen Rice (D., N.Y.) are all cosponsors of the $15 wage hike who until recently insisted the minimum wage should account for regional differences.

None of the representatives responded to requests for comment.

One House Democrat who has maintained his opposition to the nationalized hike is Rep. Kurt Schrader (D., Ore.), who was one of only two Democrats to vote against the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill and did so partly over the inclusion of the minimum wage hike in the House bill. "I'd argue respectfully as a small businessman for 30 plus years, there's not a small businessman or woman out there who thinks raising the minimum wage in the middle of a pandemic, when we're trying to get them to hire people, makes sense," Schrader said, adding that involving the minimum wage in the bill was "disingenuous to the American people" in the first place.

Schrader was one of the 12 cosponsors of the 2019 PHASE in $15 Wage Act, arguing that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to economics in the United States. "The cost of living is different in rural areas, towns, and large cities," he said at the time. "A new federal wage should take that into account."

Cooperation by vulnerable Democrats on contentious issues such as the minimum wage will be needed for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) to get anything through. With just the loss of Schrader and Rep. Jared Golden (D., Maine), Pelosi's coronavirus relief bill passed 219 to 212—if the other original PHASE cosponsors had stuck to their guns, any bill including a nationalized minimum wage would have failed in the House.

The shift by Democrats to back the $15 minimum wage represents a component of the broader leftward move by Democrats in Congress on economic issues.

Schrader reversed course and voted for the Big Labor-backed PRO Act, which he voted against last year, after union members picketed his district office. Schrader had said the bill "would negatively impact many small businesses and their employees in Oregon," but, like Rep. Cindy Axne (D., Iowa), he voted for a bill that he acknowledges will harm his constituents.

Published under: Minimum Wage