In a move that puts him out of step with his fellow Republicans on the campaign trail, frontrunner Mitt Romney said in New Hampshire that the minimum wage should be pegged to inflation and rise with the cost of living.
"My view has been to allow the minimum wage to rise with the [Consumer Price Index] or with another index so that it adjusts automatically over time," Romney said when questioned by Anne Thompson of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, a liberal group that lobbies for higher minimum wages. "I already indicated that when I was governor of Massachusetts and that's my view."
Indeed, Romney's statement is consistent with the position he carved out while running for governor in 2002, when he said the state minimum wage should be tied to inflation. It didn't happen during his tenure, and Romney in fact vetoed a raise in the minimum wage while governor in 2006 because he said the proposed $1.25 boost over two years outpaced the rising cost of living.
The federal minimum wage remains $7.25 per hour, translating to a salary of about $15,000 for a full-time worker. If it had kept pace with inflation since its high in the late-1960s, it would now be more than $10 an hour, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
If the federal minimum wage was pegged to a price index -- as 10 state minimum wages already are -- Congress wouldn't have to go through the often-messy political process of drafting new legislation to raise it every few years. Of course, liberals and low-wage workers like the idea of automatic cost-of-living adjustments, arguing that the minimum wage should keep pace with the cost of food, gas and other staples. But business groups and most free-market conservatives intensely dislike the concept, arguing that higher minimum wages ultimately lead to job loss.
The season's GOP presidential hopefuls haven't had kind words for the minimum wage generally, let alone one tied to inflation and destined to rise regularly. Libertarian Ron Paul, not surprisingly, has said it should be abolished. Michele Bachmann, who dropped out after Iowa, suggested it might need to be rolled back. And Herman Cain, who suspended his campaign last month, spent much of his time at the National Restaurant Association lobbying against minimum-wage increases.
All of which makes Romney's stance fairly unique among this crop of candidates. Claiming routine hikes in the minimum wage destroy jobs, the conservative Employment Policies Institute criticized Romney for the position, saying in a statement that "as a former businessman who claims to know how to create jobs, Mitt Romney should know better than to support putting minimum wage increases on autopilot." When asked by NELP's Thompson in New Hampshire if he shared Romney's position, Newt Gingrich said, "No, and I'm surprised that's his position."
Although it won't help him with big-business donors, Romney's stance could curry favor with the voting public, which very much likes the idea of a rising minimum wage. President Barack Obama, too, has supported the idea of a minimum wage tied to inflation. He made a failed campaign pledge to raise it to $9.50 by 2011 and have it indexed.
If nothing else, Romney's position has endeared him -- somewhat -- to NELP. Jen Kern, the group's minimum-wage coordinator, doesn't hesitate to offer Romney qualified praise for his recent statement.
"This isn't in keeping with the rest of his agenda, which is consistently anti-worker," said Kern. "But on this position, it says he's closer to the American public than the rest of [the candidates]. And it's surprising to see it come from a Republican front-runner."
This post has been updated to include Romney's 2006 veto of the Massachusetts minimum-wage bill.