THE REPUBLICAN effort to block a rise in the minimum wage may or may not be smart economics, but it is dumb politics. Despite the GOP's control of both the House and the Senate, President Clinton is going to prevail on this issue and thus solidify his image as a Democrat who has regained the legislative initiative in Washington.
Even Sen. Bob Dole, as he awaits the Republican presidential nomination, has said of his party's position on the minimum wage: "You can't explain it." He, as much as anyone, knows the conservative litany: that a higher wage kills jobs at the lower end of the wage scale, that it raises costs beyond what market forces dictate and that it undercuts U.S. productivity and competitiveness. But tell that to a worker trying to support a family on $4.25 an hour.
"Even welfare pays much more," says Rep. Jack Quinn of Buffalo, one of 20 House Republicans who defied their own leadership this week to offer a $1 increase in the minimum wage that is 10 cents higher than even the Democrats propose. Vice President Al Gore flatly predicts Mr. Dole will give in to the 84 percent popular support for a higher minimum. In real terms, he said, the wage floor is at a 40-year low.
This situation illuminates how much the ideological mind-set of House conservatives is a drag on Senator Dole's prospects for victory in November. He must know that with the nomination virtually in hand he has to start steering the GOP toward the political center. But to maintain party unity, he also has to accommodate the demands of the party's right wing.
The current debate has exaggerated the consequences actually at stake. The two-step 90-cent rise proposed by the Democrats will hardly assuage the frustrations of working-class families who earn well over the minimum. Nor will it impact business as grievously as its opponents aver. "Be realistic," admonishes Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican moderate.
Senator Dole's job is to get this distraction behind him and get his party focused are more significant political question: the wage stagnation affecting middle-class workers whose votes are crucial. President Clinton now has a leg up on this issue, due to the generosity of his Republican opponents, but there is plenty of time for the GOP to make the case that it is the economic-growth party.
Pub Date: 4/22/96