House Republicans today unanimously rejected an agency funding amendment by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) that would have required the federal government to pay a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour to its employees.
The vote – 193 to 230 – came a day after a bizarre exchange on the House floor in which the Republican opponent of the measure, ignoring Grayson's explanation, claimed that the amendment would mean federal workers would not be paid at all.
"This amendment would end the federal government's practice of paying poverty wages to its workers and hopefully set an example for the private sector to stop paying poverty wages to its workers," Grayson said Tuesday when he introduced the amendment to an appropriations bill funding financial services and general government operations.
President Obama has already signed an executive order setting a $10.10 minimum wage for federal contractors. But that executive order does not apply to workers directly hired by federal agencies. As a result, "the federal government can pay as little as $8.62 an hour for a grade 1, step 1 worker," Grayson said.
The amendment would have eliminated the salary grades in the federal "general schedule" that pay less than $10.10 an hour.
"My amendment simply would not allow the government to pay anyone less than $10.10 an hour – still a very modest amount," Grayson said.
"I don't quite understand what the gentleman is trying to do," responded Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), the lone Republican speaking in opposition and a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "As I read the amendment, it basically says you just can't pay federal employees. If I am a federal employee and somebody says you can't pay me this wage, I guess I can either come to work and not get paid or I can just decide that you decided not to pay me so I don't think I will come to work anymore."
"I guess on behalf of the federal employees, I have to oppose that, because I think all federal employees ought to be paid," he said.
While it's likely that Crenshaw had not seen the amendment before Grayson presented it, it's hard to believe that Crenshaw didn't understand it. He is the chairman of the general government subcommittee of the Appropriations committee, which is the subcommittee that handles funding for federal personnel.
But Crenshaw's profession of ignorance and confusion served to enable him to dodge the substance of Grayson's argument: The federal government – via taxpayers like you and me – is the nation's largest low-wage employer. That means tens of thousands of federal workers are eligible to receive nutrition assistance, Medicaid, housing subsidies, the earned income tax credit, and other aid. It simply makes no sense to pay public workers less than they need to meet their most basic expenses, and then make up the difference through government aid programs.
President Obama's executive order on federal contractors helps to address that absurdity. But a leading House Republican, when given a chance to at least debate whether to raise the wage floor for all federal workers, apparently could not even demonstrate that he understands the question.
But now we understand who stands with low-wage workers, and who would rather lock them in a false choice between poverty wages and no wage at all.