Congressional Democrats Ready New Bill for $12 Federal Minimum Wage

by Mitchell Hirsch

Congressional Democrats are preparing a new bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020.  Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the senior Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, are working to craft the measure and introduce it by late April.

Advocates expect that it will include annual increases in each of the next five years to bring the federal minimum wage, currently stuck at a poverty-level $7.25 per hour, to $12 in 2020 and then adjust it each year after that to rise with increases in the overall median wage.  Equally significant, it will also phase out altogether the lower subminimum wage for tipped workers.  The low tipped worker wage, which has been frozen at just $2.13 since the Clinton Administration, has been the focus of growing calls for reform.

With the new $12 bill, the Democrats are aiming significantly higher than their former $10.10 proposal, which was blocked by Republican filibusters in the Senate and by the refusal of Republican leaders to give it a vote in the House.  A $12 federal minimum wage by 2020 would restore the federal minimum wage to approximately 50% of the average U.S. wage – its value 40 years ago when the U.S. economy enjoyed strong growth and low unemployment.  And it would provide raises to a significant share of the U.S. workforce, lifting many working Americans and their families out of poverty.

Senator Murray told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this week why the higher $12 minimum wage proposal is needed.

“The $10.10-an-hour proposal is one we advanced two years ago this summer,” Murray said in an interview.  “We were looking at where we should be, had that passed, and where we should be going with wages in this country.

“I know from my own experience, when you pay a livable wage people have increased buying power and can take care of their families’ needs.  Businesses get more income and succeed.  It is good for everyone.”

Public support for a substantially higher minimum wage has been overwhelming, with 75 percent in a recent poll favoring a $12.50 rate by 2020 – four points higher than the support for a lower $11 rate.

The new $12 federal bill is in line with wage proposals that are advancing this year at the state and local levels.  The Washington State House recently passed a $12 minimum wage plan, and a hearing is expected in the Senate.  Legislation to set minimum wages of $12 or higher is also being considered in California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon.

The City of Los Angeles is currently considering both a $13.25 and a $15.25 minimum wage proposal.  Seattle and San Francisco have already enacted laws putting them on a path to a $15 minimum wage, Chicago enacted a $13 wage, and a new $12.25 minimum wage recently went into effect in Oakland, California.

Whatever the prospects for passage of a new $12 federal minimum wage bill may be given the makeup of the current Congress, it is clear that there is broad public support for such a significantly higher minimum wage.  And some opposition to such higher minimum wage rates may be dissolving in Congress itself.  Just yesterday, two Republican Senators – Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio – crossed party lines and joined all 44 Senate Democrats and the two Independents in voting for Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) budget amendment calling for enactment of a “substantially” higher federal minimum wage.  All of the 52 other Senate Republicans, however, voted against it and defeated the amendment.

Nevertheless, a strong campaign for a new $12 bill in Congress should help rally support nationwide in advance of 2016 elections, and help fuel the momentum for such substantially higher minimum wages in states and cities across the country.