The current level of the minimum wage is an increasingly embarrassing issue for many members of Congress. In real (inflation-adjusted) terms, the minimum wage is at its lowest level since the early years of the Eisenhower administration. There has been no adjustment for inflation in nearly nine years despite the fact that gasoline prices have more than doubled during that period and apartment rents are rising by more than 10% a year in some cities.

Congress has adjusted its own salaries nine times since the last change in the minimum wage, and only a few weeks ago the members voted themselves a $3,300 pay increase for next year. To put that in perspective, it would take a worker earning the minimum wage three months to earn the equivalent of the pay increase members just voted themselves.

The public appears to fully recognize the importance of an upward adjustment in the minimum wage. A recent Pew Poll found that 83% of all Americans support an increase and 72% of Republicans support it.

But no matter how popular it is across the country, it is not a winner on K Street. A number of key business organizations have put their foot down — and in the House of Representatives where their power is the greatest — to ensure that no minimum wage legislation is permitted to reach the House Floor for a vote.

But all hell broke loose last week when seven Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee felt they couldn’t toe the line any longer. They bolted from the short leash they are normally held on, voting with all of the Committee Democrats to boost the current $5.15 minimum hourly wage by $2.10. House leaders responded angrily, stating that the provision would not be protected by the procedural resolution needed to bring the bill to the House floor for debate and warning that it would be stricken on a point of order with no opportunity for the chamber to vote on the issue.

That strategy crumbled when the whip organization of Congressman Roy Blunt (R-MO) reported that the procedural resolution that the leadership team had threatened to use to strike the committee’s language would not receive enough votes to pass. That left only Plan B, which was to postpone (probably until after the election) any floor action on the entire Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriation Bill — a measure that contains nearly 40% of all the funding for the domestic activities of the federal government.

Alas, the surprising Republican revolution over the minimum wage was short-lived. When Democrats offered identical minimum wage language to the Science, State Commerce and Justice Appropriation Bill on Tuesday, the wayward Republicans returned to the fold. Congressmen Ray LaHood of Illinois, Mike Simpson of Idaho, Jim Walsh of New York, Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania and Bill Young of Florida reversed their vote and opposed the provision they had supported only a week ago.

Two other would-be “champions of the working poor,” Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) and John Sweeny (R-NY) avoided the wrath of their elected leaders through another tack. They simply left the room during the roll call and returned after it was finished. Emerson explained to the Wall Street Journal earlier in the week that, “her polling on the issue in Missouri �?? testified to the issue’s popularity.” She evidently felt that the best way reconcile the views of the people who elected her with the demands of her leadership was to skip the vote.

Whatever it says about the statesmanship and political courage of the two members who left the room, it says at least as much about the institution in which they serve. That institution was carefully designed by the founding fathers as the centerpiece of our democracy. It is the only place in our government where political power is supposed to be proportionate to the sentiment of the people.

But obviously none of the seven members felt they could represent the sentiment of their constituents. Service in the House — at least on the Republican side of the aisle — now requires first and foremost subservience to the people within the chamber who the members elect, not those back home who elected them. DeLay is gone, but the latest vote on the Appropriations Committee demonstrates that DeLayism is still alive and well.

Ultimately the blame is not with the leaders. It is with those members who repeatedly buckle to their will. They are the enablers that have created the kind of Congress we now witness in the nation’s capital. For the two members who decided that the easiest course was to leave the room, there should be some special recognition. Perhaps they should get the “duck of the week” award.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow

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