David Adler: Obama’s call for a wage hike resounds across Idaho

January 30, 2014 

President Barack Obama’s announcement of an executive order to raise the minimum wage paid by federal contractors, trumpeted in a sobering reminder that “many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead,” should resonate among the rank and file in Idaho, who bear the burden of defending the fact that a higher percentage of its workforce toils for bargain-basement wages than that of any state in the nation.

At a minimum, it should force Idaho’s congressional delegates, yet unwilling to express support for a general minimum-wage increase, to explain their reasoning to the thousands of Idahoans and their families struggling to make ends meet, even while working two and three jobs.

Obama’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour will reach, initially, a small pool of workers, although economists estimate that number might swell to half a million. While Obama has urged Congress to enact legislation to boost the pay of workers everywhere, his program is limited by the scope of presidential authority to issue executive orders. He hopes that boost might be enough to persuade Congress, particularly the GOP-led House, to sign up for the program. As Obama said in the State of the Union address: “Join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.”

A wage hike makes good economic sense. Those who labor at the bottom rung of the financial ladder will, as a matter of necessity, actually spend, not save, their income. Most of those dollars will be expended in their communities, thereby cycling dollars through grocery stores and other retail shops. That stimulus will boost local economies and spur job growth.

Some concessions might be made to small-business owners, say those who employ fewer than eight workers. They might be given latitude to provide a smaller, staggered wage hike. There is room for negotiation, if Congress becomes involved in the passage of legislation.

Obama’s message was not delivered in a vacuum. He was on stage, in a congressional election year, at a juncture when he needed to galvanize his supporters and recruit moderate Republicans and independents to his vision for the country.

If nothing else, his speech might have provided the indispensable intensity that Democrats need to win elections. His call for a higher minimum wage, like his assertion of wage equity for women in the workplace, dramatically captured in calling for an end to policies “that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode,” combined with his reminder that Americans have an obligation to protect the right of their fellow citizens to vote, covered a broad political landscape.

Resorting to executive orders is less than ideal, but if the order falls within the scope of the president’s authority, then the point of objection is raised on policy, not legal or constitutional grounds. Executive orders are a source of law when they draw upon the president’s constitutional powers or powers delegated by Congress. Those that exceed those bounds, including those that supersede a statute or violate congressional policies, have been struck down by the courts.

The president’s decision to utilize administrative legislation to boost the minimum wage follows similar administrative employment practices. Since Franklin Roosevelt, both Democratic and Republican presidents have issued orders to implement nondiscrimination clauses and threatened to withhold contracts from employers who failed to satisfy equal employment provisions in federal contracts. Bill Clinton prohibited discrimination based on “sexual orientation” in the federal civilian workforce. Congress might override Obama’s action, but that seems unlikely.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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