When is an increase in the minimum wage not an increase in the minimum wage? When it's an "increase" proposed by Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, and when it's an "increase" that will be killed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives anyway.
The federal minimum wage is $5.15, and it hasn't changed since 1997. Although many Republicans argue that any increase in the minimum wage will hurt small business and slow the economy, politicians in both parties have come to understand that proposals to raise the minimum wage have widespread support among voters. Even as George W. Bush carried Florida in November, the state's voters approved an initiative that boosted Florida's minimum wage. The measure won by a margin of 72-28 percent, and a majority of voters in every Florida county -- even the very reddest ones -- voted for it.
Howard Dean has identified minimum wage increases as winning proposals for Democrats, and Ted Kennedy has proposed one as an amendment to the bankruptcy bill now before the Senate. Under Kennedy's proposal, the federal minimum wage would go up in three bumps over 26 months, ultimately hitting $7.25 an hour.
Perhaps because the Florida vote makes them nervous about appearing to be against an increase in the minimum wage, Republicans have a proposal of their own. Under a plan proposed by Rick Santorum, the minimum wage would go up in two bumps over 18 months, ultimately reaching $6.25 an hour. That's a dollar an hour less than the Kennedy plan -- we're quick with math here -- but that's not the worst of it. Santorum's plan would also exempt from the minimum wage, and a whole host of other federal labor laws, any employer with revenues under $1 million; allow some employers to offset minimum wage salaries with tips workers receive; and rob many workers of overtime pay by instituting federal "flex-time" rules. Thus, workers would receive a smaller increase under Santorum's plan, fewer of them would be protected by the federal minimum wage laws at all, and whatever gains some workers made through a minimum wage increase would be lost to offsets from tips or cutbacks in their overtime pay.
But not to worry. The whole exercise is pretty much for naught. Santorum's proposal is plainly meant to give Republicans cover for defeating Kennedy's, and neither proposal has a chance of getting through the House of Representatives, where Tom DeLay has already announced that minimum-wage legislation will be dead on arrival. For the foreseeable future, the minimum wage will stay at $5.15 an hour -- just enough to leave a family of three about $5,000 a year below the poverty line.