The Davis-Bacon Act: Issues and Legislation During the 109th Congress
CRS Report for Congress
The Davis-Bacon Act: Issues and Legislation
During the 109 Congress
Updated October 31, 2006
William G. Whittaker
Specialist in Labor Economics
Domestic Social Policy Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The Davis-Bacon Act: Issues and Legislation
During the 109th Congress
The Davis-Bacon Act (1931, as amended) requires, among other things, that not
less than the locally prevailing wage be paid to workers employed in federal contract
construction. Through recent decades, the act has become a continuing source of
contention. Some raise questions: Should the act be modified? Strengthened?
Repealed? Can it be administered effectively and fairly?
Adopted in 1931 at the urging of the Hoover Administration, the act was
regarded as an emergency measure intended to help stabilize the construction
industry and to encourage employment at fair wages — i.e., not less than those
prevailing in the locality of the covered work. It was amended in 1935 and its scope
broadened. In 1964, a fringe benefit component was added. Subsequently, Davis-
Bacon provisions have been incorporated within numerous federal program statutes.
The original Davis-Bacon Act was a relatively simple statute which, it was
assumed, the Secretary of Labor would have little difficulty administering. However,
the nature of the statute, changes within the construction industry, and extension of
the act to a wide range of program statutes seem to have created complications. By
the 1950s, some had begun to urge major amendment or repeal of the act. Through
the rulemaking process, the Department of Labor has modified application of the
statute — but controversies continue. Serious oversight of the statute commenced
during the early 1960s and continued through the mid-1990s. Since then, there seems
to have been a general acquiescence toward the statute. During the fall of 2005, the
act was suspended for two months in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — but then
restored to its full effect.
Among issues raised with respect to Davis-Bacon have been the following:
revision of the database upon which prevailing wage rates are based; expansion of
the conditions under which “helpers” (generally, unskilled or semi-skilled workers)
can be employed on Davis-Bacon projects; revision of the operational concept of
“site of the work” for Davis-Bacon purposes; and updating of the “prevailing wage”
determination process and the coverage threshold.
Oversight has not resulted in conclusive resolution of issues surrounding the
Davis-Bacon Act. Debate continues with respect to the application of the act to
specific program statutes. Should all (or most) federal and/or federally assisted
contract construction be covered by a prevailing wage requirement? Should the act
apply in cases where indirect federal funding mechanisms are used — i.e., tax credits
and/or revolving loan funds? What is (or has been) the economic impact of the
prevailing wage requirement?
This report has been written from the perspective of a labor economist. It
suggests certain occasions during which the Davis-Bacon Act has become a
legislative issue. As these develop during the 109th Congress, the report will be
Introducing the Davis-Bacon Act......................................1
The Structure and Context of Davis-Bacon..........................2
The Purposes of the Act.........................................3
A Continuing Process..........................................5
The Debate Over Davis-Bacon.......................................6
Perspectives of Davis-Bacon Critics...............................6
Perspectives of Davis-Bacon Supporters............................7
What Do We Really Know About the Impact of the Davis-Bacon Act?........8
Some Areas of Continuing Concern...................................9
The “Helper” Issue.............................................9
Setting Out the Issue.......................................9
Efforts to Revise the “Helper” Requirement....................10
Another Look from the Congress.............................11
Initiatives of the 108th Congress..............................12th
Initiatives of the 109 Congress..............................13
The “Site of the Work” Coverage Issue............................13
Questions of Interpretation..................................13
A New Rule Is Issued......................................15
The Clean Water Act and Prevailing Wage.........................15
An Altered Requirement?..................................15th
Consideration During the 107 Congress......................16
Consideration in the 108th Congress..........................18th
Consideration in the 109 Congress..........................18
Modernization of America’s Railroads............................19th
Through the 107 Congress.................................19
In the 108th Congress......................................20th
In the 109 Congress......................................20
Other Davis-Bacon Legislative Issues of the 109th Congress...............20
Child Care Construction and Renovation Act.......................20
Investing for Tomorrow’s Schools...............................21
The Public Health Service and Davis-Bacon........................22
The Davis-Bacon Enforcement Act...............................22
To Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act..................................22
The Davis-Bacon Suspension of 2005.................................23
The Davis-Bacon Act: Issues and
Legislation During the 109 Congress
The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 (as amended) requires that not less than the
locally prevailing wage be paid to workers employed under federal construction
contracts.1 It also affects manpower utilization on such projects: for example, the
employment of helpers or unskilled/semi-skilled general utility workers. With
respect to the implementation of the act, Congress has assigned wide administrative
responsibility to the Secretary of Labor, but legislative oversight has continued more
or less continuously at least since the 1950s.
Through the years, Davis-Bacon provisions have been written into numerous
program statutes. Application of the act to these (and to new legislative programs)
has continued to spark congressional interest. Some have urged that the prevailing
wage statute is as important now as it was in the 1930s. Others contend that the
requirement should be set aside in order to stretch construction dollars by permitting
payment of less than locally prevailing rates. Frequently, the Davis-Bacon or
prevailing rate question has been contested within the context of program statutes in
which wages were not a central focus — though, nonetheless, of considerable
Introducing the Davis-Bacon Act
In 1931, at the urging of the Hoover Administration, Congress enacted
prevailing wage legislation for federal contract construction — legislation
cosponsored by Representative Robert Bacon (R-NY) and Senator James Davis (R-2
PA), i.e., the Davis-Bacon Act. The act was significantly amended in 1935 and its
scope broadened. In 1964, the definition of prevailing wage was expanded to include3
a fringe benefits component. Otherwise, the act remains essentially in its 1935 form.
Although there have been intermittent efforts to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act and the
1 40 U.S.C. 3141-3148. Davis-Bacon provides a wage floor. To recruit and retain a skilled
workforce, contractors may be forced, by the market, to pay wages in excess of those found,
under Davis-Bacon, to be prevailing in the locality of the construction work.
2 Robert Bacon had engaged in banking in New York prior to his election to the House of
Representatives in 1922. James Davis had served as Secretary of Labor in the cabinets of
Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover prior to his election to the Senate in 1930.
3 For a quick historical overview of the act, see CRS Report 94-408, The Davis-Bacon Act:
Institutional Evolution and Public Policy, by William G. Whittaker.
related Copeland “anti-kickback” Act (1934),4 such initiatives have been consistently
rejected by Congress — which has, through the years, added Davis-Bacon
requirements to numerous individual program statutes.
The Structure and Context of Davis-Bacon
The Davis-Bacon Act requires that federal (and some federally assisted)
construction contracts specify the minimum wage rates to be paid to the various
categories of laborers working under those contracts. Minimum wages are defined
as those rates of pay found by the Secretary of Labor (a) to be prevailing (b) in the
locality of the project (c) for similar crafts and skills (d) on comparable construction
work. The concept of locality is usually (but not necessarily always) a county or
metropolitan area. Normally, construction work is divided into four categories:
residential, non-residential buildings, highway, and heavy construction.
The act does not require that collectively bargained (union) wages be paid unless
such wages happen to be prevailing in the locality where the work takes place.
Further, the prevailing rate for Davis-Bacon purposes represents a floor, not
necessarily the rate that a construction firm will have to pay in order to recruit and
retain qualified workers.5
Typically, the Department of Labor (DOL) conducts two types of wage rate
determinations: general area determinations and, where necessary, specific project
determinations. DOL sometimes collects data through a direct survey process. More
often, it works from data provided by contractors, trade unions and other interested
parties. It may use both methods, jointly.
The act requires that the “advertised specifications for every [construction]
contract in excess of $2,000, to which the United States or the District of Columbia
is a party,” must specify the wage that the Secretary of Labor determines to be
prevailing in the locality for the “various classes of laborers and mechanics”
employed on the covered work. Speaking generally, DOL does not recognize
unskilled or semi-skilled “helpers” as a class of workers for wage rate determination
purposes. Rather, it evaluates workers by craft. Thus, employers are discouraged
from employing helpers on Davis-Bacon projects, turning to more skilled
craftspersons instead. DOL does, however, recognize apprentices and encourages the
employment on Davis-Bacon projects of persons enrolled in bona fide apprenticeship
4 Some employers, it was alleged, had paid the prevailing wage to their workers but then
demanded rebates or kickbacks. To end this practice, Congress passed the Copeland “anti-
kickback” Act in 1934 (P.L. 73-324). Though not a part of the Davis-Bacon Act, it operates
in tandem with that statute and, in policy terms, is usually a part of the Davis-Bacon debate.
5 There does not appear to be any systematic analysis of the gap, if any, between the floor
provided by the Davis-Bacon Act and the wages actually paid to construction workers on
6 With the Fitzgerald Act in 1937 (29 U.S.C. 50 ff.), the federal government assumed an
oversight role with respect to apprentice training. Workers enrolled in programs recognized
Supplemented by other statutes, work under Davis-Bacon is covered by
workhours and health and safety standards legislation — though the latter are not part
of the Davis-Bacon Act, per se. The related 1934 Copeland “anti-kickback” Act
requires weekly reporting of wages actually paid, with an affirmation from employers
that any deductions from wages due to employees were proper.
Davis-Bacon applies to direct federal construction, alteration, or repair of public
buildings and public works, including painting and decorating, where the contract is
in excess of $2,000. Further, Davis-Bacon provisions have been written into
numerous federal program statutes. Some states have enacted “little Davis-Bacon”
acts. These state statutes, however, normally differ from each other and from the
federal Davis-Bacon Act.7
In general, labor standards for federal contract procurement are governed by
three statutes. The Davis-Bacon Act applies only to federal contract construction.
The Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act (1936) deals with labor standards with
respect to goods produced under contract for the federal government. The
McNamara-O’Hara Act (1965), popularly known as the Service Contract Act, deals
with labor standards under federal service contracts. (These statutes do not apply to
fully private sector work.) In addition, there is the more general Contract Work
Hours and Safety Standards Act (1969) — the latter, an amalgam of earlier federal
workhours and safety enactments. Although the federal contract labor standards
statutes supplement each other (i.e., for construction, goods, and services), they have
different wage floors, different triggering mechanisms and other requirements, and
are applied differently with respect to the various types of federal contract work.8
The Purposes of the Act
In the 1920s, the federal government undertook a major program of public
works. As the nation moved into a depression after 1929, this program had important
implications for the areas where the work was to be performed. However, given the
by the Department of Labor (or in cooperating state programs) receive specified training
which, when complete, results in a credential certifying the competence of the graduate
(journeyman). The credential is portable (i.e., recognized throughout the country). Such
programs are usually funded jointly by the employer and the apprentice (through a
temporarily reduced wage) and, often, by a contribution from the trade union in the craft.
The reduced wage option, which increases normally with the systematic improvement in the
skills of the apprentice, tends to encourage employment of apprentices on Davis-Bacon
projects. Some open shop (i.e., non-union) firms, however, prefer to train workers
7 See CRS Report RS20940, The “Little Davis-Bacon” Acts and State Prevailing Wage
Standards, by William G. Whittaker.
8 For a more extended (but critical) account of these statutes and their administration, see
Armand J. Thieblot, Jr., Prevailing Wage Legislation: The Davis-Bacon Act, State “Little
Davis-Bacon” Acts, the Walsh-Healey Act, and the Service Contract Act (Philadelphia,
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986). See also CRS Report RL32086, Federal Contract
Labor Standards Statutes: An Overview, by William G. Whittaker.
depth of the economic catastrophe and the scope of unemployment, any opportunity
for work — almost without regard to wage rates or conditions under which the work
was to be performed — was attractive both to workers and to struggling firms.
Federal construction contracts were normally awarded to the lowest responsible
bidder — a process that appears to have limited the options of the various federal
agencies when selecting a contractor. Treatment of workers and payment of fair
wages were not taken into account. The result, some argued, was the sacrifice of
product quality (and labor standards) for short-term economy. Certain itinerant
contractors, employing workers imported from low-wage parts of the country, were
able (or believed to be able) to underbid local contractors for federal construction
work. In this way, it was alleged, fly-by-night operators would win contracts, based
upon the payment of sub-standard wages (to workers desperate for employment but
sometimes lacking mature and/or appropriate skills), and then produce an inferior
quality of construction. In that manner, the positive rehabilitative economic impact
of public building and public works projects for the various localities was reduced
— to the disadvantage both of local contractors and local workers alike.9
In drafting the Davis-Bacon Act, Congress was not searching for the cheapest
available labor for federal construction work. Rather, it prescribed payment of not
less than the locally prevailing wage in order, in part, to protect fair local contractors
and workers, residing in and employed in local markets, from contractors and low-
wage crews from outside of the area of construction work. Thus, the original Davis-
Bacon Act was as much a protection for fair contractors as for workers.10 However,
supporters have contended there is no essential conflict between the purposes of the
statute and securing a bargain for the public agency consumer (the taxpayer).
The prevailing wage statute preceded the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) with
its minimum wage provisions and was, thus, a somewhat new concept in federal
labor standards law.11 Davis-Bacon was viewed as a device that might help to ensure
quality of construction, to stabilize the local economy and industry, and to make the
9 During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the contracting community appears to have been
very much concerned about establishment of quality controls, ethical standards, and fair
competition. See, for example G.F. Schlesinger, “Responsibility as a Pre-Requisite,” The
Constructor, Aug. 1928, pp. 24-25, 55-61; “‘Irresponsible Contractor’ Defined,” The
Constructor, Aug. 1928, pp. 35-36, 51; A. E. Horst, “Accomplishments in Cooperation:
Elimination of Irresponsibility Marks Progress of the Industry,” The Constructor, Nov.
pp. 40-41, and 58; and E. A. St. John, “Cooperation Eliminating Irresponsibility,” The
Constructor, Apr. 1930, pp. 35-36.
10 The prevailing wage requirement did not preclude award of contracts to outside
contractors. It simply ensured that local labor standards would not be undercut.
11 Late in the 19th century, the states had begun to enact prevailing wage laws with respect
to public construction. See David B. Johnson, “Prevailing Wage Legislation in the State,”
Monthly Labor Review, Aug. 1961, pp. 839-845.
federal government, indirectly through its power as a consumer, a model for private
sector employers with respect to labor standards.12
A Continuing Process
In 1931, the Davis-Bacon legislation was regarded as an emergency measure.
It sparked little controversy at the time of its enactment and, from a review of the
hearings and debates of that period, it seems clear that Congress anticipated none of
the administrative problems that would ensue. Few of the terms or concepts
embodied within the statute were defined. No provision was made for
predetermination of the prevailing wage rate: only after a bid was submitted and a
contract awarded would a contractor learn what his wage obligations might be. How
disputes were to be adjusted was not specified: it was assumed that the Secretary of
Labor would have little difficulty enforcing the act. But, complications were soon
Almost immediately, restructuring of the act commenced as Congress and the
Administration each began a process of reassessment. In early 1932, in an effort to
preempt action by the Congress, President Hoover moved to strengthen
administration of the statute through Executive Order No. 5778.13 Although
Congress proceeded with general oversight of the act and, ultimately, adopted reform
legislation, that initiative was vetoed by President Hoover.14 The Copeland “anti-
kickback” Act (1934) helped ensure that the appropriate rates would be paid without
improper deductions. Then, in 1935, Congress approved basic changes to the statute.
The 1935 amendments: (a) reduced the coverage threshold from $5,000 to $2,000;
(b) extended coverage from only public buildings as in the original enactment to
“construction, alteration, and/or repair, including painting and decorating, of public
buildings or public works”; and (c) required that the locally prevailing (Davis-Bacon)
wage rates be predetermined — that is, prior to solicitation of bids — and that they
be written into bid solicitations.15
12 Some have questioned whether, given the Fair Labor Standards Act after 1938, there was
a continuing need for Davis-Bacon prevailing wage protection.
13 Proclamations and Executive Orders: Herbert Hoover, March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933
(Washington: GPO, 1974), vol. II, pp. 1066-1067.
14 These reform initiatives are discussed in U.S. Congress, Senate, Relationship Between
Employees and Contractors on Public Works, Report Pursuant to S.Res. 228, H.Rept. 74-thst
15 Reduction of the coverage threshold appears to have been motivated by at least two
considerations. First. Contracts for painting and decorating were often too small to come
under the $5,000 figure. Second. It appears that some contractors artfully divided work into
small parcels in order to avoid Davis-Bacon coverage. Reducing the threshold to $2,000
was viewed as a means through which to extend coverage.
The Debate Over Davis-Bacon
By the 1950s, Congress had begun to add Davis-Bacon provisions to various
program statutes in which federal funding made the work possible. But, such
extensions of coverage (which would involve new and different types of contract
work — and a new body of contractors) seem to have sparked increased uneasiness
with the act. Despite numerous efforts by Davis-Bacon critics, however, proposals
to weaken the prevailing wage legislation were uniformly rejected by Congress.
Through the years, arguments for and against Davis-Bacon have become largely
fixed; so have counter arguments of defenders and critics. The logic and many of the
assumptions these arguments contain have been questioned at length. In the evolving
debate, few contentions about the act have gone (or are likely to go) unchallenged.
On both sides, there are truths that advocates tend to accept without question.
Current policy debate has focused upon change: to amend the act, whether to
strengthen it or to diminish its impact — or to repeal the statute outright. Outlined
below are some of the arguments advanced by critics and by defenders of
Davis-Bacon expressed in summary as each side in the ongoing debate might state
them. Some of these arguments, pro and con, may not appear on the surface to be
consistent; but, then, not all critics or defenders of the act can be expected to make
precisely the same assumptions. Further, hardly a phrase of either set of arguments
has passed without refutation (and counter-refutation).16
Perspectives of Davis-Bacon Critics
Some critics of Davis-Bacon argue that the act is inflationary (unnecessarily
increasing public construction costs), that it is difficult to administer (that it has
frequently been inequitably administered), and that it hampers competition —
especially with respect to small and minority-owned businesses that may be
unfamiliar with federal contracting procedures and lack the staff to deal with the
requirements such procedures impose. They contend that the act impedes efficient
manpower utilization, limiting the use of “helpers” or general utility workers. Some
argue, were Davis-Bacon restrictions absent, that contractors would be able to
restructure the work to be performed, dividing tasks into less complex assignments,
in order to make practical the employment of workers who may be less skilled — and
who are also less expensive to employ. The result, they argue, would be increased
efficiency. And, they suggest, this would likely open more employment opportunities
to minorities and women, allowing them to gain work experience and on-the-job
training, while reducing the costs of public construction.
16 Among trade unionists, the Davis-Bacon Act affects primarily persons involved in the
building and construction trades where the statute seems to have general support. Critics
of the act, however, are a more diverse group. In some measure, industry is split. In policy
terms, the division of opinion seems to be more often philosophical, reflecting basic
attitudes toward labor-management relations rather than a division along partisan political
lines. The distinctions are not always neatly drawn.
Besides, critics note, the Davis-Bacon Act (1931, 1935) was enacted before
there were federal minimum wage standards. With the general minimum wage floor
established under the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), they suggest, the Davis-Bacon
Act is no longer needed: that is, that a “super minimum wage” for federal
construction work is both unnecessary and inequitable. They assert that labor costs
for federal construction could be reduced (with savings for the taxpayer) if actual
local market wages were paid rather than administratively determined locally
prevailing wages which, some argue, may often be union rates.17 In addition, they
urge simplification of the Copeland Act’s reporting requirements, arguing that a
simple declaration of compliance would have equal effect: that compliance with
existing law is onerous, bureaucratic, and that reports are rarely even examined.
Perspectives of Davis-Bacon Supporters
Supporters of Davis-Bacon often contend that the act prevents cutthroat
competition from fly-by-night firms that undercut local wages and working
conditions and compete unfairly with local contractors: that the act helps stabilize
the local construction industry, an advantage to workers and employers alike. The
act, they suggest, may tend to assure the consuming agency of higher quality work
since employers, required to pay at least the locally prevailing wage, are likely to hire
more competent and productive workers — resulting in better workmanship, less
waste, reduced need for supervision, and fewer mistakes requiring corrective action.18
This may lead to fewer cost overruns and more timely completion of public
construction — and, in the long-term, lower rehabilitation and repair needs. Thus,
some argue, the Davis-Bacon Act could actually save the taxpayer money on public
Supporters of the act also argue that Davis-Bacon deters contractors from
fragmenting construction tasks in order to utilize low-wage (and low-skill) “helpers”
or pick-up crews. Some argue that without Davis-Bacon (and in the absence of a
collective bargaining agreement), contractors would probably be unlikely to provide
training beyond the necessary and narrow requirements of the job — and would not
likely enter into a formal program such as those monitored by DOL’s Bureau of
Apprenticeship and Training. Reducing or eliminating apprenticeship programs in
the construction industry might work to the disadvantage of minority and women
workers who are entering the building trades in growing numbers. In addition, some
assert that if “helpers” are substituted for skilled craft workers, it would likely be
minorities and some women who might be laid off or forced into lower-wage jobs
that failed to take advantage of their skills.
17 Again, one needs to recall that the Davis-Bacon prevailing rate is a floor, not necessarily
the rate that employers will actually have to pay. DOL suggests that union rates are used
only where they are found to be prevailing in a locality.
18 Conversely, some argue that, in the fully private sector, there is a significant amount of
quality construction work that is performed without Davis-Bacon protection.
What Do We Really Know About the Impact
of the Davis-Bacon Act?
Perhaps the most frequently asked question concerning the Davis-Bacon Act is:
How much money could be saved if Davis-Bacon were repealed or modified to
narrow its scope? The short (and honest) answer is probably: no one really knows.
Conversely, does Davis-Bacon save money for the federal government in its
purchases of construction — for example, employment of more highly skilled
workers on Davis-Bacon projects? Here again, a response may also be uncertain.
Davis-Bacon literature is extensive and diverse, much of it in the form of public
materials (i.e., agency reports and analyses). Journalists have taken a continuing
interest in the act, resulting in a substantial popular literature. Serious academic
studies may be fewer. It is extremely difficult for an independent scholar to review
the administration of the act to assess its impact. First. There is the scope of the
task: vast numbers of projects scattered throughout the United States, administered
by different agencies and involving hundreds of contractors and subcontractors,
working under dissimilar circumstances and in diverse labor markets. Second. There
is the problem of the availability of documentation. Since the contractors involved
are of the private sector, how much information has been preserved? Third. Access
presents a problem. Assuming that the data and documents have been preserved and
could be made available, securing such documentation (and access to administrative
personnel) may be problematic — both from the private sector (contractors, workers
and unions) and from the various public agencies.
If one assumes that documentation exists, access is allowed, that all of the
parties are cooperative, and that the means, financial and other, are available for such
an undertaking, there remains a fourth complication. The analyst would be
comparing something that did happen with something that in fact, for whatever
reasons, did not happen. Payroll records, labor-management relationships,
availability of skilled workers, quality of supervision, internal agency memoranda,
etc., all relate to an actual project and not to what might have happened under other
In the absence of a Davis-Bacon requirement, would the contract have gone to
the same contractor? If so (or if not), would the contract have been managed in the
same way? Did the act have any impact upon the wages actually paid or upon
workforce utilization? Without Davis-Bacon, would different workers have been
employed? The work of a governmental researcher may be further complicated by
political or public policy considerations.19
For all of these reasons, there appear to be significant gaps in our knowledge of
the act and of its administration despite oversight by Congress, extensive study by
public and private agencies, and the work of individual scholars. Further, few studies
19 See, also, CRS Report 94-908, Davis-Bacon: The Act and the Literature, by William G.
of the act, whether public or private, have escaped criticism on grounds of flawed
methodology or inadequate sample size. Thus, precise estimates of impacts ought
to be viewed with considerable caution.20
Some Areas of Continuing Concern
The Davis-Bacon Act has been a focus of legislative and administrative
consideration. DOL has instituted its own reform initiatives — most notably during
the Reagan Administration — but these have often proven contentious and have
resulted in prolonged litigation. Among areas of continuing concern and controversy
are those discussed below.
The “Helper” Issue
The Davis-Bacon Act makes no mention of “helpers”; nor does it refer to
“trainees,” “apprentices,” or other skill groups. Rather, it refers to “various classes
of laborers and mechanics” and then leaves up to the Secretary of Labor the
determination of just what those “various classes” might be and how they might be
distinguished one from the other. But just what is a “helper” — and how might he
or she be differentiated from a “laborer” or skilled construction worker? An equally
contentious issue has been whether the use of helpers is a common or prevailing
practice in the locality of a proposed federal construction project.21
Setting Out the Issue. Under Davis-Bacon, before bids are solicited, the
minimum locally prevailing wage rate is determined for each category of worker that
might be used on the project. Where a “helper” category is not recognized in the
locality of the projected construction, craft or laborer rates have to be paid,
potentially (but not necessarily) increasing the labor cost of such construction. On
the other hand, recognition of a helper category where it is not common or prevailing
area practice could defeat the purposes of the act, (i.e., allowing contractors to
fragment tasks so that low-skilled, low-wage helpers could be employed instead of
laborers and craft workers) resulting in a downward wage spiral. Further, some
20 A distinction needs to be made between labor costs and project costs. Higher labor costs
could result in lower project costs if more efficient and more skilled workers are employed.
But, as a practical matter, to what extent are actual project costs governed by the
requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act? Might they reflect the manner of federal agency
oversight and monitoring of the progress of the work? Is federal construction work
supervised as closely as that of the private sector? What might be the impact of other
federal requirements: style of construction/architecture, especially for ceremonial buildings?
Is cost impacted by various “set asides” for sheltered contractors — small and minority
business and the like? For an example of the problems private research involves, see Martha
Norby Fraundorf, with John P. Farrell, and Robert Mason, Effect of the Davis-Bacon Act on
Construction Costs in Non-metropolitan Areas of the United States (Corvallis: Oregon State
University), Jan. 1982.
21 For general background, see Herbert R. Northrup, “The “helper” Controversy in the
Construction Industry,” Journal of Labor Research, fall 1992, pp. 421-435.
argue, employment of helpers would undercut apprenticeship programs with a
generally deleterious impact upon skills transfer.
Several questions are immediately apparent: (a) Are helpers commonly
employed in the area of the projected construction? (b) Is a clear distinction made
between a “helper” and a “laborer” or other craft workers? (c) What is the technical
distinction in terms of actual work performed between such groups of workers?
Upon what is that distinction based? (d) What might be the economic impact of the
recognition and utilization of a distinct category of “helpers” on Davis-Bacon
covered projects? Such questions have remained a part of the debate over the helper
issue through more than two decades and, with the dawn of the 21st century, they
remain largely unresolved. The position of DOL on the issue has varied over time.
Efforts to Revise the “Helper” Requirement. Through the years, helpers
have been employed on Davis-Bacon construction where their use was common in
the area of the projected work and where they were clearly distinguished from
“laborers” and from skilled craft workers. However, such use of helpers appears to
have been infrequent. During the late 1970s, the Carter Administration opened the
general issue of Davis-Bacon implementation for debate and public comment.
Seizing the opportunity, industry urged a closer adherence to area practice when22
establishing worker classifications — “especially ‘helper’ classifications.” But
before new Davis-Bacon regulations could be given effect, President Carter was
replaced in office by President Reagan — regulations proposed by the former
Administration were withdrawn and their substance reconsidered.
New Davis-Bacon regulations, proposed by the Reagan Administration in May
1982, redefined the concept of helper and, potentially, expanded their use: this
change was applauded by industry and objected to by the building trades unions.23
Litigation followed. In order to circumvent objections raised by the courts, DOL
redrafted the helper regulations. In January 1989, during the Bush Administration,
the courts acquiesced in the judgment of the Department and cleared the regulations
for implementation. At that juncture, Congress objected, refusing to appropriate
funds for implementation and enforcement of the regulation. This restraint continued
into the 1990s, disappearing during fiscal 1996. Then, another impediment was
raised: DOL, under the Clinton Administration, declined to act.
In June 1996, the Associated Builders and Contractors brought a suit to require
DOL to enforce its helper regulations. DOL responded quickly and, in late July,
Assistant Secretary Bernard Anderson affirmed that the helper regulation (approved,
but still suspended) was “simply ... non-administratable.” Anderson explained that
the distinction between helpers and other workers in terms of their role and duties
was insufficiently clear, and that DOL had no intention of implementing the24
regulation in its current form. In a Federal Register notice of August 2, 1996, DOL
noted that during the 14 years that had passed since the regulation was first
22 The Constructor, Dec. 1980, p. 61.
23 Federal Register, May 28, 1982, p. 23644 ff.
24 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, July 29, 1996, pp. A9-A10.
published, “additional information has become available which warrants review of
the suspended rule.” Therefore, the regulation remained in abeyance while DOL
engaged “in substantive rulemaking” on the issue.25
Through the next five months, DOL reassessed the data and, in December 1996,
it announced that the helper regulation would remain suspended “until the
Department either (1) issues a final rule amending (and superseding) the suspended
helper regulations; or (2) determines that no further rulemaking is appropriate, and
issues a final rule reinstating the suspended regulations.”26 In July 1997, the U.S.
District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Department was within its
rights to issue an indefinite suspension of the helper regulation.27 Then, in April
1999, DOL issued a new proposed rule that would, essentially, reaffirm the status
quo prior to the Carter Administration initiatives of the late 1970s — two decades
earlier.28 Thus, the use of helpers would be limited to demonstrated common area
practice where they were clearly differentiated from “laborers” and other craft
workers. Under the proposed rule, their use could be expected to be infrequent.
Another Look from the Congress. Late in the 105th Congress,
Representative Charlie Norwood (R-GA) introduced legislation that would have
created a special category of workers (i.e., “helpers”) for Davis-Bacon purposes, butth
no action was taken on the proposal. Early in the 106 Congress (in March 1999),
the Congressman introduced new legislation that would have established a separate
helper classification under the Davis-Bacon Act. On July 21, 1999, the House
Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Education and the
Workforce, conducted a general hearing on the impact of Davis-Bacon helper rules
for job opportunities in the construction industry. The Subcommittee, however, took
no further action: the Norwood bill was not reported.
The “helper” issue also arose during committee consideration of the Labor,
Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations for FY2000. In that
instance, Representative Anne Northup (R-KY) raised objection to the helper
regulation that DOL had proposed in April 1999. At the Congresswoman’s request,
language was added during mark-up that would have denied funding “to implement,
administer, or enforce” the helper rule proposed by the Clinton Administration.
However, through the legislative process, the provision was dropped. What impact
its inclusion would have had may not have been entirely clear since, in essence, it
would have codified existing practice.
As the 106th Congress was drawing to a close, DOL issued a new final
regulation governing the use of helpers. It was dated November 14, 2000, and was
set to take effect 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register — just hours
prior to the end of the Clinton Administration. The regulation provides that helpers
25 Federal Register, Aug. 2, 1996, p. 40367; and Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor
Report, Aug. 1, 1996, pp. A2-A3.
26 Federal Register, Dec. 30, 1996, p. 68646.
27 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, Aug.4, 1997, pp. A10-A11.
28 Federal Register, Apr. 9, 1999, pp. 17442-17458.
will be recognized as a “distinct classification ... only where” the following
(i) The duties of the helper are clearly defined and distinct from those
of any other classification on the wage determination;
(ii) The use of such helpers is an established prevailing practice in the
(iii) The helper is not employed as a trainee in an informal training
The work of a “helper” is not to be performed by any other classification of worker29
“in the wage determination.”
While this final regulation from the Clinton Administration has now gone into
effect, it may not be the end of the process. On the one hand, the Department could,
at its discretion, reevaluate the “helper” question and issue a new proposed rule. Or,
conversely, Congress could attempt to resolve the issue through new legislation.
On May 23, 2001, Representative Norwood introduced legislation that, had it
been passed, would have redefined the concept of “helper” and would have permitted
the use of “helpers” on Davis-Bacon projects. The bill was referred to theth
Subcommittee on Workforce Protections where it remained at the close of the 107
Initiatives of the 108th Congress. In the 108th Congress, the “helper” issue
was raised again by Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) with the introduction
of new legislation. The Blackburn bill would (a) mandate recognition, for wage rate
determination purposes, of helpers as a separate workforce classification, and (b)
require that a helper “be paid the prevailing wage of helpers ... employed on projects
which are of a character similar to the project on which the helper is employed” in
the locality “in which the helper is employed.” The bill continues:
... the term “helper” means a semi-skilled worker (other than a skilled
journeyman mechanic) who —
(1) works under the direction of and assists a journeyman;
(2) under the journeyman’s direction and supervision, performs a
variety of duties to assist the journeyman, such as preparing, carrying,
and furnishing materials, tools, equipment, and supplies, maintaining
them in order, cleaning and preparing work areas, lifting, positioning,
and holding materials or tools, and other related semi-skilled tasks as
directed by the journeyman; and
(3) may use tools of the trade at and under the direction and
supervision of the journeyman.
The Blackburn bill was referred to the Committee on Education and the Workforce
and to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections where it died at the close of the
29 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Review, Nov. 20, 2000, pp. E1 forward. For a
more detailed discussion of this issue, see also CRS Report 96-228, Davis-Bacon:
Employment of Helpers on Federal Contract Construction, by William G. Whittaker.
Initiatives of the 109th Congress. On September 27, 2005, Representative
Blackburn (with Mr. Norwood as a co-sponsor) introduced H.R. 3907, the “Helpers
Job Opportunity Act.” The bill, essentially the same as the Blackburn bill of the
108th Congress, was referred to the House Committee on Education and the
Workforce and, on November 7, 2005, was referred to the Subcommittee on
The “Site of the Work” Coverage Issue
The initial Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 was a relatively simple statute; but, with
experience, the statute was modified. In 1935, new language was added to provide
that the act’s prevailing wage requirements should apply to “the contractor or his
subcontractor” and to “all mechanics and laborers employed directly upon the site of30
Through the years, with implementation of the act, questions have arisen with
respect to this seemingly uncomplicated provision. For example, what is the “site of
the work” and how is “directly” to be defined? By whom must the workers in
question be employed? These concepts have changed over time with altered
technology and industry practice. But, rather than being quietly resolved, the “site
of the work” issue would become a subject of administrative review and, ultimately,31
of litigation. Rulemaking in this area would continue until near the close of the
Clinton Administration late in 2000. Litigation would be extensive.
Questions of Interpretation. Differences in the interpretation of the “site
of the work” are numerous. For example, given the specific wording of the statute,
if workers engaged in the construction of a building (working on the structure itself)
were covered by Davis-Bacon, would workers in an adjoining space mixing mortar,
etc., be similarly covered? How far removed from the actual structure could such
work take place and still be regarded as “directly upon the site of the work?” Where
some assembly of components is undertaken in a holding area down the street a little
way, would workers engaged in such assembly be regarded as employed “directly
upon the site of the work” for Davis-Bacon coverage purposes? If prefabricated units
to be used at a construction site in Alaska were assembled at a site in Seattle (a
thousand miles away), would the Seattle workshop be considered part of the site of
As one begins to apply the statute, questions multiply. For example, one might
use the case noted above. Is the site in Seattle owned by the firm operating in
Alaska? Are the employees, engaged in the work in Seattle, direct employees of the
Alaska firm? Is the Seattle site dedicated solely to the Alaska project? Or, is the
work in Seattle being performed by a manufacturing plant that makes and sells
components to any construction firm engaging in work, public or private? Are the
30 P.L. 74-403. The provision remains a part of the statute.
31 See, for example, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO v. United
States Department of Labor Wage Appeals Board, 932 F. 2d 985 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (Midway);
Ball, Ball and Brosamer v. Reich, 24 F. 3d 1447 (D.C. Cir. 1994); and L. P. Cavettrdth
Company v. U.S. Department of Labor, 101 F. 3 1111 (6 Cir. 1996).
components, thus, purchased in the open market? Or, are they developed and
fabricated under a specific federal contract? When do the fabricated goods change
ownership — from the manufacturer to the construction firm? Are they installed by
workers employed by the construction firm or by employees of the manufacturer?
And, if the latter, would these non-construction workers (installers) be Davis-Bacon
covered?32 Was the support facility created solely to serve the federal project (did it
have prior existence) and will it, likely, close when the federal project is completed?
If a contractor, engaged in work covered by Davis-Bacon, has concrete hauled
to the construction site (the permanent location of the structure, in this instance), how
are the drivers hauling the concrete to be treated? Does it matter by whom the
drivers are employed? Or, how long they are directly involved on the construction
site (however defined) as opposed to actual hours spent driving? If the construction
contractor sets up a separate firm to haul material, would this device insulate the
drivers from Davis-Bacon coverage?
Such questions may seem tedious, but they have been, through decades, the
subject of rulings from the Comptroller General and a focus of litigation and/or of
appeals through the hierarchy of DOL. Among federal contracting agencies, there
has not always been agreement on these matters. They have also been a focus of
attention for those who wish to extend Davis-Bacon coverage broadly — and for
those who favor a narrower application of the act. DOL has sought to deal with these
issues through the regulatory process (and continues to do so) but with mixed results.
Even precise judicial rulings have been insufficient to prevent partisans from finding
nuances of meaning, either in the statute or in the regulations, from which further
litigation might blossom.33
32 Several options could come into play. The components in this hypothetical case could be
off-the-shelf purchases in which federal labor standards requirements may not be an issue.
They could be contract purchases of goods, covered by the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts
Act rather than the Davis-Bacon Act. Or, if purchased from the manufacturer and installed
by employees of the manufacturer, the work could be regarded as an adjunct to the purchase
of the goods (possibly Walsh-Healey covered) or part of a service contract covered under
the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act. The particular circumstances, likely different
in each case, would seem to be determinative. These issues were the subject of extensive
hearings during the early 1960s with respect to missile site development. See U.S.
Congress, House Committee on Education and Labor, Special Subcommittee on Labor,thnd
Administration of the Davis-Bacon Act, hearings, 87 Cong., 2 sess., Part 1, June 6, 1962
ff (Washington: GPO, 1962); and, U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Government
Operations, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Work Stoppage at Missile Bases,thst
hearings, 87 Cong., 1 sess., Parts 1 and 2, Apr. 25, 1961 ff (Washington: GPO, 1961).
More generally, see CRS Report RL32086, Federal Contract Labor Standards Statutes: An
Overview, by William G. Whittaker.
33 Concerning recent litigation, see the following, all authored by William A. Isokait:
“Davis-Bacon Developments after Midway Excavators,” The Constructor, July 1991, pp.
100-102; “What Midway Excavators Means for Federal Construction Contractors,” The
Constructor, Aug. 1992, pp. 27-29; and “Anatomy of a Victory: Reason Restored, Courts
Rule Davis-Bacon Act Language Means What It Says,” The Constructor, Aug. 1994, pp. 20-
A New Rule Is Issued. On September 21, 2000, DOL published in the
Federal Register a proposed rule redefining the concept of “site of the work” and
calling for public comment through October 23, 2000. Under the proposed
regulation, “site of the work” would be defined to include, in addition to the common
concept of a construction site, “... any other site where a significant portion of the
building or work is constructed, provided that such site is established specifically for
the performance of the contract or project.” This would include, further, “job
headquarters, tool yards, batch plants, borrow pits, etc.,” where they are “dedicated
exclusively, or nearly so” to the performance of the contract and are “adjacent or
virtually adjacent to” the site of work. It would not include “permanent home offices,
branch plant establishments, fabrication plants, tool yards, etc.,” the existence of
which is not dependent upon the federal or federally-assisted project. Pre-established
facilities (those extant prior to opening of project bids) are not to be regarded as part
of the site of the work.34
The proposed rule was opposed by certain construction industry groups but35
supported by the building trades unions. On December 20, 2000, DOL published
the final rule in the Federal Register. Unchanged (in this respect) from the proposed36
rule, it took effect on January 19, 2001. But, like the “helper” case, the issue of the
“site of the work” could be addressed further through departmental rulemaking,
through legislation — neither one a simple task — or through further litigation.
The Clean Water Act and Prevailing Wage
In 1961, Congress passed federal water quality legislation that would emerge as
what is now popularly known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). Included in the 1961
legislation was a provision applying Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements to
construction of sewage treatment facilities where there was a federal involvement
(i.e., direct federal assistance), notably through grants to the states.
An Altered Requirement? In 1987, Congress shifted its focus. Rather than
continuing with a program of direct federal funding (grants) of such construction, it
established a structure of state revolving loan funds (SRFs), about 80% federally
funded with 20% non-federal matching funds. Congress expected that, by FY1995,
the SRFs would provide a continuing source of financing for pollution abatement and
that the federal role (further appropriations) would end. In authorizing legislation
(1987), Congress mandated Davis-Bacon coverage for such work commenced prior
Things did not work out as anticipated, however. First, the SRFs did not
provide an adequate source of funding for pollution abatement work. Second,
Congress continued to fund this work — though channeling much its support through
the SRFs. Third, because of a series of unrelated environmental controversies (for
34 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, Sept. 21, 2000, pp. A8-A9; and Federal
Register, Sept. 21, 2000, pp. 57269-57276.
35 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, Oct. 26, 2000, pp. C1 forward.
36 Federal Register, Dec. 20, 2000, pp. 80268-80278.
example, a dispute concerning the environmental approach to wetlands), no new
authorizing legislation was adopted after 1987. However, Congress continued to
appropriate funds for the CWA and the SRF program continued.
Thus, a question arose. If the abatement program remained federal in terms of
funding and priorities (notwithstanding the absence of authorizing legislation),
should the statutorily mandated administrative requirements of that program —
including the prevailing wage requirement — remain in place? In 1995, the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that Davis-Bacon would no longer
apply to SRF-related construction: that the requirement (but not the funding) had
terminated at the end of the period covered by the 1987 authorization (i.e., by
FY1995). Thereafter, agencies involved in such work would be permitted to pay
contract construction workers less than the locally prevailing wage (the market
permitting) and to avoid any other perceived disadvantages associated with Davis-
The Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, or BCTD,
protested and, following extended negotiation, EPA changed its position. In May
2000, it proposed a “settlement agreement” under which Davis-Bacon would once
more apply to certain CWA/SRF construction and, in an announcement published in
the Federal Register of June 22, 2000, called for comment. Comment was sharply
divided: some industry groups and local governmental entities (users of construction
labor) urged that Davis-Bacon not apply — and, for the most part, argued that EPA
was moving beyond its statutory authority in attempting to reinstate that requirement.
The BCTD, conversely, held that Davis-Bacon did apply and, ultimately with the
concurrence of EPA, that the environmental agency was statutorily bound to enforce
the prevailing wage requirement. In the Federal Register of January 25, 2001, EPA
decided that Davis-Bacon did (and should) apply and would be applied effective on
July 1, 2001. Subsequently, EPA moved the effective date back to September 1,
2001 — and then to October 1, 2001. The situation then became somewhat
Consideration During the 107th Congress. Debate on the Davis-Bacon
provision of the Clean Water Act continued into the 107th Congress as the House and
Senate commenced consideration of new clean water legislation. In each instance,
the prevailing wage provision was a relatively minor — though contentious — part
of an otherwise comprehensive legislative package. The committees in the House
and Senate proceeded independently — though they covered much of the same
Senate Action. On February 26 and 28, 2002, hearings were conducted in the
Senate by Subcommittees of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. Two
proposals were under consideration. S. 252 was presented by Senator George
Voinovich (R-OH) that, inter alia, would have deleted certain of the administrative
requirements of the 1987 CWA legislation but would have left the Davis-Bacon
37 For a more extended sketch of this issue, see CRS Report RL31491, Davis-Bacon Act
Coverage and the State Revolving Fund Program under the Clean Water Act, by William
requirement in place. S. 1961, introduced by Senators James Jeffords (I-VT) and
Bob Graham (D-FL), was silent on the Davis-Bacon issue.
As the Committee moved forward with the CWA legislation, the Davis-Bacon
issue became a focus of attention — and remained so during full Committee mark-up
in May 2002. An amendment, proposed by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), resulted in
applying Davis-Bacon coverage to all CWA and Safe Drinking Water SRFs.38
According to the National Journal, Senator Robert Smith (R-NH) argued that the
amendment might be self-defeating. “If Davis-Bacon is added to this bill,” Smith
predicted, “it’ll be dead as a mackerel ... dead, dead, dead!”39 The bill was reported
on July 29, 2002, with the Davis-Bacon requirement, but it died at the close of the
House Action. In the House, a somewhat different bill (H.R. 3930) was
introduced by Representative John Duncan (R-TN). The Duncan bill, in eliminating
certain administrative requirements, also deleted Davis-Bacon coverage.
During mark-up by the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on
March 20, 2002, Representatives Sue Kelly (R-NY), Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) and
Peter DeFazio (D-OR) proposed an amendment restoring the Davis-Bacon40
requirement and making it apply to SRFs — including recycled funds. The
amendment was approved and the bill, as amended, was ordered to be reported41
(March 20, 2002).
The result, it appears, was a stalemate. According to the Daily Labor Report,
House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX) declared that he “will not allow a bill
to authorize appropriations for state water pollution control projects to come to the
House floor because of a Davis-Bacon Act amendment included in the measure.” At
the same time, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don
38 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Water Investment
Act of 2002, report to accompany S. 1961, S.Rept. 107-228, 107th Cong., 2nd sess.
(Washington: GPO, 2002), p. 45. (Hereafter cited as Senate Committee on Environment and
Public Works, Water Investment Act of 2002.) The Daily Labor Report, May 20, 2002, p.
A10, stated that under the Reid amendment to S. 1961, the prevailing wage requirements
“would apply to second and subsequent rounds of funding” for projects under the
39 David Hell, “Environment Panel Slogging Ahead on $35 Billion Water Quality Bill,”
National Journal, May 16, 2002.
40 CRS Report RL31683, Clean Water Act: A Review of Issues and Legislation in the 107th
Congress, by Claudia Copeland, p. 7. Representative Michael Rogers (R-MI) proposed an
amendment to weaken the Kelly-Tauscher-DeFazio amendment, as reported by the National
Journal, on the ground that the stronger language, according to “‘a leadership office’”
would “‘stop the bill.’” The National Journal further stated: “Young replied that he would
be ‘surprised’ if the bill were stalled, and Rogers’ amendment was defeated on another voice
vote.” Michael Steel, “$20 Billion Loan Fund Approved for Wastewater Projects,”
National Journal News Service, Mar. 20, 2002.
41 H.R. 3930 was also referred to the Committee on Ways and Means and reported on Apr.
Young (R-AK) was said to have “pledged that no legislation would be reported out
of his committee without Davis-Bacon coverage.”42 No further action had been taken
on H.R. 3930 by the close of the 107th Congress.
Consideration in the 108th Congress. With the opening of the 108th
Congress (January 7, 2003), Representative Kelly of New York introduced new
Clean Water Act legislation (H.R. 20) which, among its other provisions, affirmed
Davis-Bacon coverage for SRF projects. In April, an alternative proposal, the “Water
Quality Financing Act of 2003" (H.R. 1560) was introduced by Representative
Duncan of Tennessee — a bill that was silent on the prevailing wage issue. Hearings
were held on June 19 by the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
and, on July 17, 2003, the Duncan bill was unanimously approved and sent on to the43
full Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Representative Kelly, with
the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Representative Jerry Costello of Illinois,
reportedly indicated that they would reintroduce the Davis-Bacon issue in full
Meanwhile, in the Senate, two bills were introduced that dealt with clean water
and safe drinking water: S. 170 (Voinovich) and S. 2550 (Crapo). The Voinovich
bill was silent on the issue of Davis-Bacon, as was, initially, S. 2550. However, a
Davis-Bacon provision was added to S. 2550 and, although reported, the bill
Ultimately, collateral controversies (largely, debate over the Davis-Bacon Act)
proved too strong for either the House or Senate bills. Each of these bills, to
authorize appropriations, died at the close of the 108th Congress.
Consideration in the 109th Congress. Early in the 109th Congress,
legislation was introduced that would modify the CWA State Revolving Fund
program. Two bills addressed the issue of Davis-Bacon coverage.
H.R. 2684, sponsored by Representative Kelly (with Representative Tauscher),
was introduced on May 26, 2005. Referred to the Committee on Transportation and
Infrastructure, the measure proposed, under the capitalization grants agreements, to
require that “section 513 of this Act” (the Davis-Bacon provision) be implemented
in the same manner “as treatment works constructed with assistance under title
II....”45 The bill, to authorize appropriations, was assigned (May 27) to the
Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.
42 Daily Labor Report, Apr. 18, 2002, p. A7.
43 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, “Water Quality
Financing Act of 2003 Unanimously Approved by House Subcommittee,” press release,
July 17, 2003.
44 See Juliana Gruenwald, “House Subcommittee Boosts Wastewater Treatment Loan
Program,” National Journal, July 17, 2003; and Kathryn A. Wolfe, “Subcommittee
Endorses Water Development Bills,” CQ.com, July 17, 2003.
45 See Section 3(a) of H.R. 2684.
S. 1400, sponsored by Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), was introduced on July
14, 2005, and was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public
Works. On July 20, 2005, the Committee met and favorably reported the bill.
During mark-up, Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CN), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and
Barack Obama (D-IL) proposed an amendment requiring that Davis-Bacon prevailing
wage requirements be imposed “on projects funded by the Clean Water Act State
revolving loan fund.” The amendment was approved on a voice vote. “The bill, as
amended, was ordered favorably reported by unanimous consent.” 46 The Chafee bill,
to authorize appropriations, was placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar under
General Orders, Calendar No. 304.47
Modernization of America’s Railroads
Upgrading of America’s rail transportation system has been a continuing
concern of the Congress. Here, the question has emerged: Should track and
construction workers fall under the Davis-Bacon Act?
Through the 107th Congress. H.R. 1020 was introduced by Representative
Jack Quinn on March 14, 2001. The bill would, among other things, have directed
the Secretary of Transportation to “establish a program of capital grants for the
rehabilitation, preservation, or improvement of railroad track.” Companion
legislation, S. 1220, was introduced by Senator John Breaux (D-LA) on July 23,
H.R. 1020 was referred to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Following hearings, it was marked up and reported — and, on June 12, 2001, placed
on the Union Calendar. It would have required, inter alia, that “laborers and
mechanics employed by contractors and subcontractors in construction work,”
financed under the legislation, “be paid wages not less than those prevailing on
similar construction in the locality” (i.e., the Davis-Bacon requirement). And,
further, that “The Secretary [of Transportation] shall make a grant under this section
only after being assured that required labor standards will be maintained on the
S. 1220, which was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and
Transportation, contained parallel language with respect to Davis-Bacon coverage.
46 U.S. Congress, Senate, Water Infrastructure Financing Act, Report To Accompany S.
1400, 109th Cong. 1st Sess., S.Rept. 109-l86, Dec. 8, 2005, p. 33. Subsequently, the report
noted: “An amendment offered by Senators Lieberman, Boxer and Obama to impose Davis-
Bacon prevailing wage requirements on projects funded by the Safe Drinking Water Act
State revolving loan fund was approved by voice vote.” See also pp. 15 and 25.
47 Concerning the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, see CRS Report
RL33465, Clean Water Act Issues in the 109th Congress by Claudia Copeland; and CRSth
Report RL33549, Safe Drinking Water Act: Issues in the 109 Congress, by Mary Tieman.
48 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Railroad Track
Modernization Act of 2001, report to accompany H.R. 1020, 107th Cong., 1st sess., H.Rept.
On August 1, 2002, S. 1220 was reported from Committee.49 Both bills died at the
close of the 107th Congress.
In the 108th Congress. On January 15, 2003, Senator Ernest Hollings (D-
SC) introduced S. 104, the “National Defense Rail Act.” The bill directed that an
assessment be made of security risks associated with rail transportation and that the
Secretary of Transportation make certain upgrades in existing rail infrastructure. “It
is critical,” the Senator affirmed, that the Senate adopt this legislation in order “to
ensure that our railroads are secure and we have adequate investment in both Amtrak
and the development of high speed rail corridors....”50 A companion bill, H.R. 2726,
was introduced in the House by Representative Julia Carson (D-IN) on July 15, 2003.
The Hollings/Carson bills, like the Quinn/Breaux bills of the prior Congress,
each contained a Davis-Bacon requirement. No immediate action was taken on eitherth
bill, and each died at the close of the 108 Congress.
In the 109th Congress. On June 20, 2005, Representative Robert Menendez
(D-NY), with others, introduced the “True Reinvestment for Amtrak Infrastructure
in the 21st Century Act.” The Menendez bill included a Davis-Bacon provision.
The bill was referred jointly to the Committee on Transportation and
Infrastructure and to the Committee on Ways and Means. It has since been referred
to the Subcommittee on Railroads.51
Other Davis-Bacon Legislative Issues
of the 109th Congress
Program legislation that has a construction component often includes a Davis-
Bacon prevailing wage provision — even though the legislation would not,
ordinarily, be regarded as a labor bill. Several such bills are listed below.
Child Care Construction and Renovation Act
On February 25, 2003, in the 108th Congress, Representative Carolyn McCarthy
(D-NY) introduced H.R. 895, the Child Care Construction and Renovation Act. The
bill, which authorized various programs to assist in the development and/or
renovation of child care facilities, included a provision applying the Davis-Bacon Act
49 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Railroad
Track Modernization Act of 2002, report to accompany S. 1220, 107th Cong., 2nd sess.,
S.Rept. 107-238 (Washington, GPO, Aug. 1, 2002), pp. 7, 10-11.
50 Congressional Record, Jan. 7, 2003, p. S80.
51 Representative Menendez has moved on to the Senate. His initial co-sponsors,
Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), remain in the House.
“to actions taken under this Act.” The bill was referred to the Committee on
Financial Services and to the Subcommittee on Housing and Community
Opportunity. No action was taken on the McCarthy proposal.
In the 109th Congress, on March 15, 2005, Representative McCarthy
reintroduced the measure (H.R. 1311) in essentially the same form. Once more, it
includes a Davis-Bacon provision. The bill was referred to the House Committee on
Financial Services and to the Subcommittee on Housing and Community
Investing for Tomorrow’s Schools
Under the General Education Provisions Act (20 U.S.C. 1232(b)), it is provided
that “all laborers and mechanics employed by contractors or subcontractors on all
construction and minor remodeling projects ... shall be paid wages at rates not less
than those prevailing” on similar work in the same area as provided under the Davis-
Bacon Act. Even this broad language, however, may not have placed Davis-Bacon
coverage, in all instances, beyond challenge. Proponents have put forth more specific
language in subsequent legislation to ensure Davis-Bacon coverage.
On November 18, 2005, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton introduced S. 2057,
the Investing for Tomorrow’s Schools Act of 2005, allowing the Secretary of
Education to enter into cooperative agreements with the states to establish
infrastructure banks (and, similarly, multi-state banks) to allow the states “to
construct, reconstruct, or renovate” certain elementary and secondary schools and
public libraries. The banks are to be revolving funds, to which not less than 25
percent of the cost will be from non-federal funds — and would require the Davis-
Bacon Act with respect to workers engaged for such purposes. The bill was referred
to the Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor, and Pensions.
On September 6, 2006, Representative Major Owens introduced H.R. 6028, a
bill to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and to provide
grants to improve the infrastructure of elementary and secondary schools. The
purpose of the bill is “to finance the costs associated with the construction, repair,
and modernization for information technology of school facilities within their
jurisdictions.” In carrying out the purposes of the act, the Secretary will (a) consider
the threat posed by the current plant “to the safety and well-being of students,” (b)
the “demonstrated need,” (c) the “age of the facility to be renovated,” (d) whether the
institution is eligible to receive funding under the National Education Technology
Funding Corporation under certain circumstances, and (e) the requirements of
“preparation for modern technology.”
Under the Owens bill, the Secretary “shall take such action as may be necessary
to ensure that all laborers and mechanics employed by contractors or subcontractors
on any project assisted under this title ... shall be paid wages at rates not less than
those prevailing on the same type of work on similar construction in the immediate
locality as determined” by the Secretary in accordance with the Davis-Bacon Act.
However, legitimate volunteers “not otherwise employed at any time in the
construction of such project” may donate their services in order to reduce the costs
of such construction. The Owens bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Education
The Public Health Service and Davis-Bacon
On June 7, 2006, Representative Gene Green introduced H.R. 5545, a bill that
would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “require that each
entity that applies to the National Institutes of Health or any component thereof for
a loan, loan guarantee, grant, contract, or cooperative agreement for any project shall
include in its application reasonable assurance that all laborers and mechanics
employed by contractors or subcontractors” in the performance of the work will be
paid wages “at rates not less than those prevailing on similar work in the locality,”
as determined by the Secretary of Labor in accordance with the Davis-Bacon Act.
The Green bill was jointly referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce
and to the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Subcommittee on
The Davis-Bacon Enforcement Act
On November 15, 2005, Representative Robert E. Andrews (D-NJ) introduced
H.R. 4329, the Davis-Bacon Enforcement Act of 2005. The measure provides that
any contractor, under a contract with the United States, who has “engaged in a pattern
of violations of this Act [Davis-Bacon]” shall be “ineligible to receive a contract with
the United Stats for a 10-year period” — unless the contractor is able to show “that
such violations were not intentional but were the result of simple and unsystematic
errors.” Under the act, disclosure of certain employee information would also be
The Andrews proposal was referred jointly to the House Committee on
Education and the Workforce (Subcommittee on Workforce Protections), and to the
House Government Reform Committee.
To Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act
On December 18, 2005, Representative Steve King (R-IA) introduced H.R.
4643, the Davis-Bacon Repeal Act. The purpose of the measure would be to repeal
the Davis-Bacon Act.
The King bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and the
Workforce and to the Subcommittee on Workforce protections.
The Davis-Bacon Suspension of 2005
Under the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, the President was allowed to suspend the
statute during a period of national emergency. The provision, with some slight
variation, remains currently within the act. The concept of a national emergency,
however, has not been defined.
The act has been suspended on four separate occasions. (1) In 1934, President
Franklin Roosevelt suspended the act for what may have been administrative
convenience associated with New Deal legislation. It was restored in about 30 days
with few people, seemingly, having been aware of the suspension. (2) In 1971,
President Richard Nixon suspended the act as part of a campaign intended to quell
inflationary pressures that affected the construction industry. In just over four weeks,
the act was reinstated, the President moving on to different approaches to the
inflationary problem. (3) In 1992, in the wake of Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki,
President George H. W. Bush suspended the act in order to render reconstruction and
cleanup in Florida and the Gulf Coast and in Hawaii more efficient. The impact of
the suspension is unclear for the act was suspended on October 14, 1992, just days
prior to the 1992 election. President William Clinton won the election and restored
the act on March 6, 1993. (4) On September 8, 2005, President George W. Bush
suspended the act in order to render more efficient reconstruction and cleanup of
Florida and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The act was reinstated
on November 8, 2005.
In 1934 and 1971, the suspensions applied to the entire country — possibly with
the understanding that they would be restored once the immediate emergency was
over. In 1992 and in 2005, only portions of the country were involved.52
At the time of the 2005 suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, a number of bills
were introduced that would have affected the act in one manner or another. Among
them are the following: H.J.Res 69 (George Miller), H.Res. 467 (George Miller),
H.Res. 488 (LaTourette), H.Res. 516 (Melancon), H.R. 3684 (Flake), H.R. 3763
(George Miller), H.R. 3834 (Pallone), S. 1749 (Kennedy), S. 1763 (Boxer), S. 1817
(DeMint), and S. 1925 (Kennedy). None of these bills was enacted. The suspension
came to an end on November 8, 2005.
52 For an account of the 2005 suspension, see CRS Report RL33100, The Davis-Bacon Act:
Suspension, by William G. Whittaker.