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Ben McAdams: Serious about raising the minimum wage? Get bipartisan

Raising the minimum wage is one of those rare issues where all sides largely agree in principle. Finding compromise, in practice, is much more difficult.

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Activists appeal for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill being prepped in Congress includes a provision that over five years would hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Congress is once again engaged in a high-profile battle over raising the federal minimum wage. Will this be the finale when the long-running standoff ends, resulting in an hourly wage “floor” greater than the current $7.25 per hour? 

My prediction? Not until both sides take off their partisan armor and find a consensus solution.

Raising the minimum wage is one of those rare issues where Republicans, Democrats and independents largely agree in principle. Since it was established in a 1938 federal law, the minimum wage has been raised 22 separate times — most recently in 2007. A $15 an hour minimum wage polls strongly across most demographic groups and regions. But, as usual, when seeking to pass a law through both the U.S. House and Senate and get it signed by the president, any hurdle that comes up with the legislative details may easily spell its doom.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, there are 1.6 million workers — or 1.9% of all hourly paid workers in the U.S. — whose wages are at or below the federal minimum wage. Most minimum wage workers in this country are female, are age 20 or older, work part-time and are in food service occupations.

Those such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and other Democrats pushing for a $15 per hour minimum wage, argue that increasing earnings helps reduce poverty, provides more purchasing power for the economy, reduces inequality and reduces employee turnover.  Those arguing for a lower increase — as with Sen. Mitt Romney’s $10 per hour minimum wage proposal — often cite concerns with the $15 rate as costing jobs, increasing prices and no reduction in poverty, because the action is poorly targeted.

Meanwhile, as federal legislators continue their standoff, 30 states and the District of Columbia all have adopted a state minimum wage that is greater than $7.25 per hour. Nine states, including California and New York, are schedule to reach a $15 minimum wage between 2020 and 2026.

I support raising the minimum wage, but I couldn’t back the $15 minimum wage bill when I served in Congress because of concerns I heard from the small-business owners in my congressional district. Many told me that its one-size-fits-all would do more harm than good for employment in Utah. Many wanted to continue doing the right thing by their employees as far as salaries, health insurance and other benefits, while continuing to remain profitable.

Sadly, legislative maneuvers result in often just one choice — an up-or-down vote on a measure crafted by the party in power. It’s a good talking point for the party’s political base to say that you passed the Raise the Wage Act in the House, even when you know it stands no chance in the Senate. What may be good politics isn’t the same thing as actually getting something done for minimum wage workers.  

There are good people on both sides of the aisle who recognize this and strive to make a winning argument for consensus and compromise. It happened numerous times last year as Congress came together to provide COVID-19 emergency relief for individuals, families and small businesses. My hope is that for the sake of achieving progress on raising the federal minimum wage in our country, that spirit of bipartisanship will rise up again and result in much-needed unity of purpose in Washington, D.C.

Ben McAdams formerly represented Utah’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives