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Why the Far Right Is Going Nuts About Obama's Minimum Wage Maneuvering

The Presient's decision to raise wages for a small number of federal contractors has drawn out the crazies.

Michele Bachmann (R-MN).
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons


It’s no great secret that Republicans oppose increasing the minimum wage. They don’t pretend it’s something they want to do under any circumstances. They don’t even really bother disguising their opposition. They cloak their view in dated and oversimplified economic arguments about labor demand and economic growth when the real impediment is ideological, and so it’s a somewhat better kept secret that many Republicans oppose the minimum wage altogether.

Opposing the minimum wage isn’t a politically seemly thing to do, though, and thus the great political consequence of President Obama’s decision, announced during his State of the Union address, to institute a $10.10 minimum wage for future federal contracts, will be to draw the extent of this opposition out into the open.

If there’s one thing conservatives agree upon with respect to Obama’s executive order, it’s that it won’t impact very many people. They’re actually probably correct about that. Yet despite the policy’s marginal impact, some conservatives abruptly turned discovering the means of denying a higher wage to a tiny number of workers into a top priority.

In the days since Obama’s State of the Union address, they’ve attacked the order itself, encouraged Congress to block it, and scoured federal law for a reason that the courts should throw it out.

Irrespective of legal questions, the smart political play for Republicans is to let Obama have this one. Assume the order’s validity, note that it’s a fairly marginal change, and then move on. Don’t turn it into an ideological lightning rod.

House Speaker John Boehner understands this, which is why his reaction to the minimum wage order was fairly subdued.

“I think dealing with federal contracts and the minimum wage, he probably has the authority to do that. But we’re going to watch very closely because there’s a Constitution we all take an oath to — including him — and following that Constitution is the basis for our republic, and we shouldn’t put that in jeopardy,” he told reporters last week. “Let’s understand something: This affects not one current contract,” Boehner said. “It only affects future contracts with the federal government. And so I think the question, Mr. President, is how many people will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”

But other conservatives can’t let well enough alone.

National Review writer Charles Cooke grants that Obama’s maneuver is probably legal but argues that Congress should pick this moment to assert its supremacy. “If Congress were as jealous of its role as it should be, lawmakers would block this move and they would censure the president into the bargain. Why? Because although the move is technically legal, the executive branch is inexorably ranging into territory that is the hard-won preserve of legislatures.”

Of all the claims Congress could make against the executive branch’s tendency to overreach, this is the one they should make, and urgently so.

Not necessary, argues Cooke’s co-blogger, conservative legal scholar Andrew Kloster.

“The problem with Cooke’s assessment that the proposed Executive Order is ‘probably, just about’ legal, is that there is actually a statute on point that cabins the president’s discretion regarding wage terms in federal contracts for services,” he writes. “[F]ederal law requires that the default federal contract wage not be pulled out of a hat: rather, it must be assessed ‘in accordance with prevailing rates in the locality.’ While it is unclear at this point what authority the president is relying upon to justify this $10.10 rate, what remains clear is that the specific statute on point — the Service Contract Act — sets clear limits on his discretion. If $10.10 per hour is the ‘prevailing’ wage in New York for janitorial workers, then federal contracts for janitorial services in New York should set $10.10 as the wage for those services. But if $9.00 per hour is the ‘prevailing’ wage for cafeteria workers in Nebraska, no Executive Order can require federal contracts for those services to pay those workers $10.10. And a contractor denied on that basis would have a viable lawsuit to invalidate that Executive Order.”

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