Allow Minimum Wage Workers to Share Congress' COLA

06/14/2006 09:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

At least Congress appreciates irony. The following two AP stories appeared within hours of each other, both written by Andrew Taylor:

The first article details how the House Appropriations Committee voted 32-27 to approve an amendment to a health and education bill to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25. The author of the amendment, Rep. George Miller [D-CA], is quoted saying, "The minimum wage is lower than it has been at any time since 1956. Congress' refusal to raise the minimum wage shows an utter disrespect for millions of Americans who work hard every day and still struggle to meet even the most basic needs." He obviously feels strongly about it, but unfortunately the minimum wage raise will probably not survive when it gets to the House floor since the Appropriations Committee doesn't even have jurisdiction over the issue. In other words, there's virtually no chance the Republican-dominated House is going to pass it any time soon. The article should really have a sub-head reading: "But It Ain't Going to Happen."

The second article tells how the House voted 249-167 to "not deny" themselves their automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 2% this year, raising their salary to $168,500. Back in the 1980s, voting themselves a pay raise used to be a recurring embarrassment for Congress. Since they got so much political heat from constituents back home every time they did it, they eventually changed the rules in 1989. The new rules state that they automatically get a COLA unless they specifically vote against raising their own salaries (which is what they just voted down).

Nice. They don't even have to vote for anything, which means constituents don't hear about it and hence don't complain, and so they get their automatic pay hike without even having to pay a political price for it.

There's an amusing side story to this, the bizarre-yet-inspiring story of the revenge of then-student Gregory Watson for getting what he felt was an undeserved "C" on a university paper, which led to the ratification of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution -- 203 years after it was proposed.

The 27th Amendment seems to make it illegal for any Congress to pass raises for themselves, stating that such raises can only take effect after an intervening election, but I'm not aware that the issue's ever been challenged in court. So whether constitutional or not, Congress is still going to pocket the extra $3,300 and call it a day. To add some context, $3,300 is almost one-third the amount a minimum-wage worker earns annually ($10,712).

I have proposed what is (to me) an obvious solution to the problem, obvious to anyone outside the Beltway at least. The Democrats should come out strongly for a bill which not only starts by raising the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, but also mandates a yearly minimum wage COLA.

This is only fair. Virtually every number the government uses -- from the yearly federal budget to congressional salaries -- is indexed for inflation in one way or another. So why not index the minimum wage using the same formula which decides how big of a salary bump Congress gets each year? Hold one vote on the issue, get it passed, and then you never again have to battle in Congress over the minimum wage.

Politically, it's a winner. It polls as high as 80% in favor. And the Economic Policy Institute has an extensively researched article by Jared Bernstein which debunks many of the myths Republicans always trot out whenever a minimum wage raise is brought up, chief among them the tired old "raising the minimum wage costs jobs" refrain. (It's a long and technical article, so here's the short answer: No, it doesn't.)

Businesses will whine, of course. But perhaps some of them could get on board if you explain that a regular and small raise each year (2% is what Congress got this year) is easier to plan for than getting hit periodically with raises of over 40% (from $5.15 to $7.25 is a raise of $2.10).

Try to sell them on the concept of a gradual and predictable increase in their labor costs, rather than huge hikes unexpectedly now and then. Quote figures to them: a 2% raise on $7.25 an hour would be 14 cents an hour, or $301.60 a year. A $2.10 an hour raise, on the other hand, is $4,368 a year, much harder for businesses to bear, especially when it's unexpected.

Once again, Democrats could seize an issue that polls astronomically high. It's even a traditional Democratic issue, so Democratic candidates won't have to do any soul-searching in order to support it. And it would be so easy to campaign on.

Run a television ad showing a newspaper headline of the Congressional pay raise story, and run the following voice-over: "Americans at the top of the economic ladder have benefited exorbitantly from our strong economy, and an automatic minimum wage COLA will ensure that those at the bottom do not get left behind. Congress should give some of the hardest-working Americans the same raise they get every year."

And yet, the resounding silence from the Democratic leadership continues. I remind them again: The issues are out there, just waiting to be capitalized upon.