Washington Insider-- Thursday

Political Clash on Minimum Wage

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Action Coming on Biden Trade, EPA Nominees

The nomination of Katharine Tai to be U.S. Trade Representative may not see full action in the U.S. Senate until late March even though she is not a controversial nominee, according to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Grassley formerly chaired the Senate Finance Committee which has responsibility for trade in the Senate and will be the prime panel conducting Tai's nomination hearing.

As for the nomination of Michael Regan to be EPA administrator, Grassley said he expects the Senate to vote next week or the following week.

Neither nominee is expected to have difficulty winning final Senate approval.

USDA Housing Reg Review Quickly Finished By OMB

The Agriculture Department has announced an extension of eviction and foreclosure moratoriums on USDA Single Family Housing Direct and Guaranteed loans through June 30, 2021. The extension was part of a larger Biden administration initiative on federally connected housing.

“USDA recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an almost unprecedented housing affordability crisis in the United States. That's why USDA is taking this important action today to extend relief to the hundreds of thousands of individuals and families holding USDA Single Family Housing loans,” USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Justin Maxson said.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) completed its review of a notice from USDA on relief for Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program (SFHGLP) borrowers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic under programs operated by the Rural Housing Service (RHS) at the agency.

The notice was received by OMB on February 12, with the review showing as completed February 15 “consistent with change.”

Washington Insider: Political Clash on Minimum Wage

Bloomberg is reporting this week that the proposal to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 has triggered a fierce lobbying battle, pitting some powerful business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce against large labor unions and civil rights coalitions.

These groups have been holding virtual meetings and mobilizing grassroots letter-writing and phone call blitzes to sway lawmakers, particularly moderates in both parties, as they consider attaching the wage increase to the larger pandemic relief package sought by President Biden.

The report also thinks that the proposal is serving as a test of whether unions and other groups generally aligned with Democrats can push through a top issue for them now that the party narrowly controls both chambers of Congress and holds the White House.

For the Chamber and some other large business groups, who in the past have had more ties to Republicans on policy, the debate will test their clout with the new Congress.

Democrats and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are intent on increasing the wage minimum. But how they get it across the finish line is in question.

The House Education and Labor Committee approved the increase in its portion of the pandemic relief bill. But opposition from moderate Democrats in the Senate may doom any strategy to pass it using the reconciliation process, which only requires a simple majority.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has opposed a $15 minimum wage and suggested an increase to $11. Another crucial vote, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said she doesn't support including the wage hike in a stimulus bill.

Biden said during a news interview earlier this month that he doubted it would survive as part of the package. Along with the political realities, his reasoning included the additional complication that Senate reconciliation rules may not even allow it. The Senate parliamentarian hasn't made a ruling on that yet but a minimum wage hike could also be pushed as a standalone bill.

Proponents of the hike such as the Service Employees International Union and the National Employment Law Project say the virus-driven economic downturn illustrates that a boost is necessary to help lift people out of poverty. Coalitions of companies, such as Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, argue that raising the wage helps business by reducing worker turnover and increasing productivity.

Heavy hitters including Amazon.com Inc., have also thrown their weight behind support for the proposal, saying $15 “is the minimum that anyone in the U.S. should earn for an hour of labor.”

“In this moment where front-line workers and essential workers put their lives on the line during this pandemic and are still having trouble making ends meet, it really shows how overdue this change is,” said Gaylynn Burroughs, senior policy counsel of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 organizations. The $7.25 federal minimum wage has been in place for almost 12 years.

“There's obviously lobbying going on in DC and we'll make our strongest case possible. But this isn't a fight that's going to be won inside the halls of Congress. This is about members of Congress hearing from their constituents,” said Judy Conti, the government affairs director at the National Employment Law Project.

SEIU, which started the “Fight for 15” campaign in 2012, worked with its partners to place roughly 3,000 phone calls to members of Congress during the week the measure was introduced on Jan. 26.

The Coalition on Human Needs, a collection of organizations including civil rights and religious groups, has generated more than 150,000 letters to House and Senate offices from individuals in support of raising the minimum. Deborah Weinstein, the group's executive director, said she will also be increasing virtual meetings on the Hill in the days ahead.

Opponents of the boost, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the International Franchise Association, argue that a large nationwide wage increase would hinder economic recovery by spurring business closures, higher prices for consumers, and increased unemployment.

“There's no reason Congress shouldn't discuss raising the minimum wage, we just think that the $15 number is a political number that's not based on a real economic analysis,” said Glenn Spencer, the senior vice president of the employment policy division at the Chamber. “Hopefully we'll find people who are a little more willing to get something done. Otherwise, we're back into that '15-or-bust' mentality which results in an increase of zero.”

The National Restaurant Association activated its grassroots network and has already sent “tens of thousands” of messages to lawmakers' offices regarding the wage increase and another part of the proposal that would eventually eliminate the tip credit, said Sean Kennedy, the group's executive vice president for public affairs. He called it “one of our more successful” campaigns over the past five months.

“This is a huge challenge for an industry that's on the ropes, and it will have the exact opposite impact of relief for us,” said Kennedy.

So, we will see. This is an intense campaign, with many Democratic views involved. It also is one with high stakes that producers should watch closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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