WASHINGTON — The U.S. House has set the stage for a battle in the coming days over a proposal to gradually double the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour by 2024.
Though the amount still faces some detractors, some one-time opponents of previous minimum wage hikes have signaled there may be room for compromise to pass the first federal minimum wage hike in a decade.
The debate's outcome could have a significant impact for Louisiana and four other states that have never adopted their own minimum wage laws, relying instead on Congress to set the floor for how much workers must be paid.
The Louisiana Legislature for the past four years has rebuffed Gov. John Bel Edwards’ calls for a modest minimum wage increase to $9 an hour. Edwards, a Democrat who is seeking reelection this year, campaigned on the minimum wage hike proposal and has personally appeared in hearings at the State Capitol to advocate for the proposal.
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Advocates for the business community have often spoken out against the state-level proposal in Louisiana, arguing that it could put undue strain on small businesses and that the market should decide how much employees are paid.
A central point to Edward’s argument has been that 29 other states, including some of Louisiana’s neighbors, have minimum wage levels higher than the federal rate. Eighteen states began 2019 with minimum wage increases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arkansas approved an $11-an-hour minimum wage with a ballot initiative supported by 68% of voters.
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U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who promised to make the minimum wage hike a priority if Democrats took control back of the House, has defended the decision to bring the $15 proposal to the House floor.
“(It) will increase wages for up to 27 million Americans and lift 1.3 million people out of poverty, including 600,000 children,” Pelosi said. “I’m very excited about this.”
As it stands, the $15 proposal is unlikely to pass muster in the GOP-controlled Senate, particularly after a recent nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis determined that, though it would increase pay for millions of workers, it also could trigger an estimated one million job losses. Researchers noted that the number can be hard to pin down, so it could be as many as 3.7 million.
"Many studies have found little or no effect of minimum wages on employment, but many others have found substantial reductions in employment," the CBO analysis states.
That's enough for U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, to firmly stake out his opposition to the proposal, deeming it "unforgivable" if Democrats cause people to lose their jobs.
"After this disastrous report, House Democrats cannot in good conscience bring the Raise the Wage Act to the floor," he said.
But some say they see room for compromise on the issue that could ultimately boost employee pay.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business lobby in both the federal and state level, has recently said it’s willing to work on a minimum wage hike — just not the full $15 an hour that some Democrats are seeking.
“We believe there is a reasonable approach that members and the business community can come together on,” said Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer.
He wouldn’t give a definitive minimum level that the Chamber would support, but said double-digits wouldn’t be out-of-the-question if other pro-business measures are combined with the wage increase.
“It’s not unreasonable that from time-to-time Congress adjust the value of the minimum wage,” Bradley said. “What we believe is unreasonable is an attempt to raise the minimum wage based on politics instead of reality.”
He said that there is a delicate balance that can be disrupted if wages are forced at a higher level than the market dictates.
“The $15 proposal fails that test, but it doesn’t mean the alternative is to do nothing,” he said.
When coupled with a cost relief incentive for small businesses, Bradley said, the wage increase could boost the economy.
“It really can be an economic engine that helps employees and employers,” he said. “I think we can find common ground.”
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U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, an Alto Republican who is running for governor against Edwards this year, said he would be open to debate.
“We’ll see what happens as this discussion goes on,” he said. “$15 is not workable — it just puts people out of business.”
He said he worries that too big an increase in the minimum wage could some small businesses to lay off workers. He added that many minimum wage workers are younger people and in entry-level jobs.
Scalise, though, said he's not convinced any increase is needed at this time.
“We’ve got a growing economy. Wages are going up because we cut taxes,” Scalise said. “Why would the government want to come in and destroy that and undermine it with policies that have been proven to fail?”
"Why don’t we celebrate that the economy is growing and do more things to help grow the economy instead of pass bills that have been proven to kill jobs in America?” Scalise said.