A Minimum Wage Move With Maximum Confrontational Consequences

Among the stranger phenomena of the modern State of the Union tradition is how White Houses of both parties work so hard to drain it of almost all news value before the speech actually gets delivered. The demands of the continuous news cycle, which affords the president so many opportunities to spoon out dollops of his agenda, now easily outweigh the traditional virtue of surprise — and the old-time verity that there’s no use annoying your hosts, your opponents or your potential partners before you absolutely have to. The trend seemed locked in place Tuesday morning, 13 hours before the national television audience was asked to start paying attention. That was when the administration revealed what was guaranteed to be among the biggest, if not the biggest, headlines out of the address: President Barack Obama is going to give many thousands of blue-collar workers a raise — on his own authority. In other words, not only was Obama making good on his promise to make this his most assertive year yet for maneuvering around the gridlock at the Capitol, but he was getting started even before going through the formalities of seeking congressional buy-in. (Of course, he made a major push for a $9 minimum wage in his State of the Union address a year ago, and that went nowhere.) In the coming days, the president will sign an executive order setting a $10.10 an hour floor for janitors in federal buildings, crews on Interstate construction sites, dishwashers in military commissaries and all others employed on government contracts that get signed or renegotiated in the future. White House officials had no estimate of how many workers would eventually benefit. A study last May by Demos, a liberal think tank, pegged the number of laborers being paid $12 or less under existing federal contracts at 560,000. That’s a tiny fraction of the number whose pay would eventually rise if Obama is granted the related legislative wish he'll make Tuesday night: A whopping 39 percent increase in the federally guaranteed minimum wage — to that same $10.10 figure. Because so many other pay rates are tied to the minimum wage, any increase could eventually provide a boost for perhaps 20 million workers. But the numeric consequence is somewhat beside the point. The executive order will of course be meaningful to the blue-collar workers who will someday see plumper paychecks. But the most immediate big takeaway from Obama’s decree is that he has genuinely minimalist expectations for legislative achievement in 2014 — and so his interest in trying very hard is shrinking to match. The president endorsed the bill written by two of organized labor’s favorite Democrats who are retiring this fall, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. George Miller of California, which would provide 95-cent increases in each of the next three years, with the amount indexed to inflation thereafter. (The current floor, which 21 states and the District of Columbia exceed, has been $7.25 since July 2009 under a law enacted two years earlier.) Advocates say their substantial increase is necessary to restore the minimum wage to something close to the buying power it had in the early 1970s. Such a big bump was never going to be legislatively plausible in 2014. There don’t look to be enough politically vulnerable or centrist Republicans to provide the five against-the-grain votes needed to break a guaranteed filibuster in the Senate. And, even if there were, there’s no way House GOP leaders have any interest in going along — let alone the minimalist interest required from their caucus. But what did seem plausible, until now, was that an opening bid of $10.10 from the president might lead the Republicans to consider making a many-strings-attached counteroffer — with the sides potentially coming together before the election on something a bit below $9, the number from the 2013 speech. The concept of raising the wage has enjoyed better than 2-to-1 support, including from pluralities of Republicans, in at least three national polls this month. Some GOP strategists are suggesting to their clients in tight re-election bids that backing a higher minimum would help repel the argument that theirs is the party that would perpetuate widening income inequality. There is even a relevant legislative trade-off hiding in plain sight. Expanding trade is one of the few policy areas where Obama and the Hill’s GOP mainstream come together; both want to move legislation this year smoothing the way for the United States and a dozen other Pacific nations to finish a comprehensive deal. But congressional Democrats remain hostile, fearing a big downside for the world’s environment and the American labor force. Pairing a minimum wage increase with a revival of the fast-track trade system — presidents may sign trade accords that Congress must accept or reject without amendment — has the appearance of a winning combination. The odds that any sort of minimum wage deal will see the light of day went down Tuesday with the announcement of Obama’s executive order. It seemed pretty clear that he was acting within the established bounds of his legal authority. But Republicans were plenty peeved nonetheless, and their annoyance sounded likely to make them as resistant to compromise as ever this year. Combined with so many other tactical moves around a recalcitrant Congress — delaying some parts of the health care law to buy more time, ending deportations of younger illegal immigrants, launching regulations of carbon emissions from power plants, filling confirmable positions when the Senate said it was not in recess — the raise for federal contractors revived the grumbling about an imperial Obama presidency. “We’re going to watch very closely because there’s a Constitution that we all took an oath to, including him,” Speaker John A. Boehner told reporters — while simultaneously dismissing the latest move. “How many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”