Paul Waldman: Congress, low earners both need pay raises

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Nobody (or almost nobody) likes the idea of special treatment for members of Congress. They ought to live like us, be like us, share in our struggles and inconveniences, not like some cosseted elite off in their capitol on a hill.

Nevertheless, the time has come to give them a raise. And the American public, particularly those who make the least, deserve one too. So why can’t we do them together?

Let’s start with the regular people. It has now been 10 years since we raised the federal minimum wage in the United States; we’re about to surpass the longest period without an increase since the minimum wage was first enacted in 1938. Working full time at $7.25 an hour, you’d be making only around $15,000 a year, well below the poverty threshold for even a two-person family.

The reason the minimum wage hasn’t been increased in so long comes down to one word: Republicans. Pretty much every Democrat supports raising it, but an increase can’t pass because Republicans are opposed. In addition, nearly every state that hasn’t raised its own wage beyond the federal government’s is run by Republicans.

The standard Republican answer to calls for increasing the minimum wage — and I wish I were joking about this, but I’m not — is that we shouldn’t do it because what they want is for people to make even more than that. It’s like saying to a hungry person, “We could give you a sandwich, but what I really want is for you to someday enjoy a steak and lobster dinner. So no sandwich.”

What has happened in the past is that the minimum wage has been increased, then some time passes, Democrats start advocating another increase, Republicans resist it, and eventually the pressure gets great enough that Republicans relent. But perhaps because their party has become more conservative in recent years and more committed to its vision of tax cuts for the wealthy and a compliant, low-wage workforce with no ability to bargain collectively, the GOP isn’t budging.

Partly in response to that intransigence and more importantly as a response to effective grassroots organizing, today a $15 minimum wage is pretty much the consensus in the Democratic Party. Most Democrats also believe that once we raise it we should index it to inflation. The minimum would go up automatically to keep pace with the cost of living, and we would no longer have to rely on the generosity of Republicans for people at the bottom of the income ladder to get a raise.

An increase combined with indexing to inflation would solve the immediate economic problem and the long-term political problem. Which is why that’s what Congress tried to do with its own salaries.

Like anybody else, members of Congress would like a raise from time to time, but they also don’t like the idea that their next opponent will run ads saying, “While you were working hard, Congressman Forehead was voting to raise his own pay!” Which is why every time the issue comes up, everyone is skittish about it.

This was a problem we thought had been solved three decades ago when a system of automatic cost-of-living increases was put in place, relieving members of the necessity of voting themselves pay increases. The only trouble is that it didn’t keep them from voting to stop themselves from getting an increase, which is what they’ve done every year since the Great Recession hit. Once that becomes the norm, not doing it can become fodder for an attack.

Which it has once again, now that this issue has returned. Democrats and Republicans thought they had an agreement to include a pay increase in a budget bill and not attack each other over it, but then the National Republican Campaign Committee started calling Democrats “socialist elitists” for wanting a pay increase, and freshman Democrats who want to maintain their reformist bona fides said they didn’t want to vote for a pay increase, and the whole thing broke down.

There are some excellent reasons to raise congressional pay, which has been frozen for as long as the minimum wage. The current $174,000 salary may seem like a lot, but if you have to maintain two homes (one in Washington and one in your district), it really isn’t.

Furthermore, the lower the pay for members of Congress is, the more incentive they have to leave government service and cash in as lobbyists, a case made by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who set a minimum salary of $52,000 for her own staff, much higher than what you see in most Capitol Hill offices. The last thing we want is for pay to be so low that only independently wealthy people will want to run for Congress.

So the solution here is obvious: Join the minimum wage and congressional salaries together. Give low-wage workers and members of Congress a raise together, and simultaneously index the minimum wage to inflation. Then we can argue about something else.

Paul Waldman wrote this for The Washington Post.