WASHINGTON -- While pressing lawmakers in Washington to pass legislation raising the federal minimum wage, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to call upon states and cities around the country to raise their wage floors in lieu of action by Congress.
"To every mayor, governor and state legislator in America, I say: You don’t have to wait for Congress to act," the president said. "Americans will support you if you take this on."
Obama's speech acknowledged a simple fact of the minimum wage debate: While Congress hasn't moved on raising the minimum wage during his presidency, more and more local governments around the country are passing such raises on their own -- and they're often doing it with public support that crosses party lines.
As of the start of this year, 21 states and the District of Columbia had higher minimum wages than the federal level of $7.25 per hour. Ten of those states have gone ahead and tied their minimum wages to inflation, guaranteeing that they rise each year with the cost of living. Democrats are now pushing minimum wage ballot initiatives in jurisdictions throughout the country -- some of them double the federal minimum wage -- hoping the measures' popularity will help drive voter turnout.
"This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program," Obama said. "So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise."
Despite the popularity of a minimum wage increase, a year has already passed since Obama first urged Congress to act on it during his 2013 State of the Union address. The federal minimum wage hasn't been hiked since 2009, after the last of a series of increases signed into law by President George W. Bush took effect.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) have introduced bills that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and tie it to an inflation index. The legislation would also hike the minimum wage for tipped workers such as restaurant servers, whose hourly wage hasn't moved in 20 years.
As expected, the president also announced his intention to issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10. The move makes good on Obama's vow to use the power of the president's pen to circumvent congressional gridlock on his agenda. Progressive lawmakers and labor unions for months had urged Obama to issue the executive order, saying it was a simple way to raise wages for thousands of janitors and food-service workers.
"Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity and reduce turnover. We should too," Obama said Tuesday night. "If you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty."