Minimum Wage Gyrations a Replay of 1996 Game Plans

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Those who are shocked, dismayed or just confused over the convoluted path minimum wage legislation has taken this year should not be. We have been witnessing a virtual replay of what happened exactly 10 years ago, with only a few new twists and turns.

The minority party in Congress ordinarily has very little say in setting the legislative agenda. However, creative minorities often earn their stripes by using a variety of procedural ploys to raise issues of importance to their voters, even if they seldom succeed legislatively. That's not always bad (in their view) because sometimes they'd rather have the campaign issue than let the majority claim partial credit for a solution.

Legislation to raise the minimum wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.25 is one of the six planks in Democrats' platform to take back Congress this fall. It is a rare example of the minority party's successfully muscling an item onto the floor agenda against the wishes of the majority leadership. As we have seen, however, the majority ultimately controls the form in which a measure is presented for a vote. The parallels with 1996 are striking.

The opening volley in the 1996 minimum wage skirmish was fired by Senate Democrats on March 26, when Massachusetts Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, in a surprise move, offered minimum wage increase amendments to a national parks bill. Republicans had neglected to "fill the amendment tree" to block such a move and, after two days of debate, were forced to pull the bill. The same thing happened in early April of that year with an immigration bill, to which Democrats were poised to attach a minimum wage amendment. The Democrats' vow to offer the amendment to every bill considered tied the Senate in such knots that Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) eventually resigned his seat in early June to devote full time to his presidential campaign.

In the House, Democrats made their first move just two days after the Kennedy-Kerry salvo by seeking to defeat the previous question on a special rule for the Contract with America Advancement Act — a bill combining the line-item veto, senior citizens' right-to-work, small-business fairness and an increase in the public debt. Under House rules, the only way to amend a special rule is to defeat the previous question ("Shall we end debate and vote on the underlying proposition?"). Democrats said if they succeeded in defeating the previous question on the contract bill, they would offer an amendment to the rule that would allow for an amendment to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15.

Their effort failed, 232-180, but their strategy was in place. Over the next two months House Democrats made three more runs at the previous question on behalf of the minimum wage increase. Their high point came May 8, when the previous question was narrowly adopted, 218-208, with 14 Republicans defecting to the Democratic side. About two dozen Republicans who favored the minimum wage increase threatened to put the next previous question fight over the top unless the majority leadership agreed to allow the minimum wage increase to reach the House floor.

The leadership moved from adamant opposition in mid-April to reluctant retreat by early May. Opinion polls were showing 85 percent public support for the increase, and 70 House Republicans indicated by a show of hands in a closed caucus meeting that they would vote for it. Although Democrats were still calling for a "clean" bill and vote, Republican leaders in both chambers had more in mind than just a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. In the House, leaders sought to tie the minimum wage to provisions that would appeal to the GOP's allies, namely tax breaks for small businesses. The 1996 tax package, reported from the House Ways and Means Committee with overwhelming bipartisan support, provided $7 billion in small-business tax relief over eight years.

That bill and a bill providing for employee commuting flexibility were brought to the floor together. Rep. Frank Riggs, an endangered Republican from California, was given the honor of offering the minimum wage increase to the latter bill, and his amendment succeeded, 266-162, with support from 77 Republicans. Under the special rule the two bills were then automatically folded into a single bill and sent to the Senate.

After much Republican intraparty haggling, the Senate eventually passed a bill virtually identical to the House bill (though with more big-business tax breaks). A conference committee cleared the measure in early August, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law Aug. 20.

A very similar scenario unfolded this year with Democratic attempts to attach the minimum wage to several bills in the Senate. This time Republicans allowed for a vote on one of them as well as on a Republican alternative. Both failed. In the House, Democrats launched a discharge petition that gained 191 of the necessary 218 signatures. Once again they made several failed attempts to defeat the previous question on rules for unrelated bills to allow for a minimum wage vote. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) actually succeeded in committee in attaching the minimum wage increase to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill.

Moderate Republicans again tipped the balance in forcing floor action, this time threatening to oppose the August recess resolution unless a vote was held first. And once again the majority leadership eventually reversed course and tied minimum wage to a variety of tax breaks favored by Republicans, including the "death tax" reduction. This time, however, the tax package was not bipartisan. Democrats balked at the estate tax change. The bill still passed the House but fell short on a cloture test vote in the Senate.

Democrats now are insisting on a "clean" vote on minimum wage. Ironically, when they had a chance to secure just that in their motion to recommit in the House, they jettisoned only the death tax reduction while retaining billions in other tax goodies — not unlike the 1996 bipartisan package.


Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.


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