Possible Indexation of the Federal Minimum Wage: Evolution of Legislative Activity
of the Federal Minimum Wage:
Evolution of Legislative Activity
February 29, 2008
William G. Whittaker
Specialist in Labor Economics
Domestic Social Policy Division
Possible Indexation of the Federal Minimum Wage:
Evolution of Legislative Activity
Indexation of the minimum wage (linking the minimum wage to an outside
economic variable) in a variety of forms has been a subject of discussion at least
since the early years of the 20th century. When early proponents of a wage floor
began to consider the matter as public policy within the United States, they
established a series of state wage boards. These boards were given the authority to
fix a reasonable rate below which most workers were not permitted to be paid. The
powers of the boards varied from one state to the next and, where they were
reasonably effective, there was the constant fear that the courts would intervene and
overturn whatever authority the boards may have had.
The boards wrestled with a variety of methods for setting the minimum wage.
Some made surveys of the cost-of-living for low-wage employees and tried to render
a measure of equality between such costs (however defined) and income derived
from work. But surveys proved difficult and, gradually, a reliance developed upon
governmental agencies. It was not necessarily a neat fit, and questions remained.
In 1938, largely moving beyond the state boards, Congress passed the Fair Labor
Standards Act (the FLSA). The act established the federal minimum at 25 cents an
hour for those relatively few workers actually covered. Since 1938, Congress has
revisited the act in a sporadic fashion. The result, through the years, has been a series
of gradual expansions of the act and some variation in wage rates — but, generally,
since the 1960s, a downward spiral in the real value of the minimum wage has set in.
During the Reagan era, no new increases were made, and only two (the 1989 and
At present, at least five states (Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and
Washington) index their state minimum wage standards. In several other states, the
issue has recently been considered. In the 110th Congress, two bills dealing with
indexation have been introduced: H.R. 4637 (Al Green) and S. 2514 (Clinton). The
issue was not dealt with in the general minimum wage legislation (H.R. 2206, P.L.
Following a preliminary introduction of the topic, this report reviews the several
relatively distinct periods during which indexation, in one form or another, was
before the Congress. This report will be updated if conditions warrant.
PART I. INTRODUCTION.........................................1
A Matter of Philosophy.............................................1
A “Living Wage” and Basic Sustenance............................2
Wage Boards vs. a Fixed Rate....................................3
PART II. FOCUSING ON INDEXATION..............................4
House Hearings in 1947.........................................4
Senator Taft Makes a Suggestion (1949)............................6
Reports and Amendments (1949).................................7
The Peck Report...........................................7
The Lucas Amendment.....................................9
The Ellender Amendment (1949)............................10
The 1955 FLSA Amendments...................................13
The 1960s and Early 1970s.....................................14
PART III. DEVELOPING LEGISLATION:
THE 1970s AND EARLY 1980s.................................15
The 1975 Indexation Proposal ......................................15
The Hearing Proceeds.........................................15
No Further Action............................................17
The 1977 Indexation Proposals......................................18
Hearings in the House (1977)...................................18
The Opening Witnesses....................................18
Secretary Marshall Speaks for the Administration...............19
Hearings in the Senate (1977) ...................................20
Secretary Marshall Speaks for the Administration...............21
The Hearings Continue, Pro and Con.........................21
Legislation Is Considered.......................................24
Debated in the House......................................24
Debated in the Senate......................................26
The Minimum Wage Study Commission (1978-1981)....................27
Observations of the Commission.................................27
Voices of Dissent: The Minority Report...........................28
The Robinson Dissent.....................................28
Other Voices of Dissent....................................29
PART IV. THE REAGAN PRESIDENCY............................30
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and Minimum Wage.......................30
The Reagan Policy............................................30
The Minimum Wage Study Commission and Its Impact...............31
PART V. LEGISLATIVE INITIATIVES: THE LATE 1980s.............32
Minimum Wage and Indexation: 1987-1988 ...........................32
Hearings in the House.........................................32
Hearings in the Senate.........................................33
Action by the Congress (1988)..................................35
House Action on H.R. 1834.................................35
Senate Action on S. 837....................................36
George Bush and the FLSA Amendments of 1989.......................37
House Action on H.R. 2........................................37
The Review Board Proposal.................................37
Floor Action in the House..................................38
A Compromise Within Congress.................................39
The Conference Report in the House..........................39
The Conference Report in the Senate.........................40
The President Vetoes H.R. 2....................................40
Reaction in the House and an Attempt to Override...................41
A New Minimum Wage Bill (H.R. 2710)..........................41
PART VI. CONTEMPORARY POLICY: 1991-2008....................42
The 1990s and Beyond.............................................42
A Change of Policy...........................................42
Recent Proposals for Minimum Wage Indexation....................43
The 102nd Congress.......................................43rd
The 103 Congress.......................................44
The 104th Congress........................................45th
The 105 Congress........................................45
The 106th Congress........................................46th
The 107 Congress........................................46
The 108th Congress........................................46th
The 109 Congress........................................47
The 110th Congress........................................47
PART VII. FOR THE FUTURE?....................................50
Some Observations ...............................................50
List of Tables
Table 1. Federal Minimum Wage Rates, 1938-2009.....................12
Table 2. Proposals To Index the Federal Minimum Wage, 1992-2008.......49
of the Federal Minimum Wage:
Evolution of Legislative Activity
PART I. INTRODUCTION
Indexation of the minimum wage was considered some years prior to enactment
of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. It continues to be an issue of
discussion and, in some cases at the state level, has been introduced as a part of the
general minimum wage structure. This report provides an evolutionary history of
minimum wage indexation and of the federal legislative interest in the concept.
In 1937, Congress decided that certain low-wage workers should be protected
by a federal minimum wage law, and set in motion initiatives that would evolve into
the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. As amended through the years, the FLSA has
become the primary federal statute dealing with wage rates for low-wage workers.
As the law now stands, the general minimum wage is $5.85 per hour — to
increase, in steps, to $7.25 per hour by July 2009. The federal minimum is fixed by
statute and altered whenever there is sufficient support to do so in Congress. The
result has been a fluctuation in the real (or inflation-adjusted) value of the minimum
wage. It reached its highest level in 1968, and has since, intermittently, been allowed
to decline in value. To reach the 1968 level in real terms, the current minimum
would need to be slightly in excess of $9.50 per hour.1
In order to eliminate fluctuations in its real value, some have suggested that the
federal minimum should be pegged to an outside economic variable: for example,
to a component of the cost-of-living index or to some other relatively neutral series.2
A Matter of Philosophy
The concept of a minimum wage, initially, was to provide workers with a
minimum income. But how minimal? What might be included within a minimal
standard? To whom should not less than the minimum be paid? And by whom?
1 See CRS Report RS20040, Inflation and the Real Minimum Wage: Fact Sheet, by Brian
W. Cashell. Under the minimum wage structure, there are various sub-minimum rates, for
example, payable to certain youth and student workers, to tipped employees, and to persons
2 For a general discussion of this issue, see CRS Report RL30927, The Federal Minimum
Wage: The Issue of Indexation, by Gerald Mayer.
Men, it was assumed, would need at least the minimum wage to support
themselves and their families. But what about women, especially those with an
employed spouse? And young persons: youth workers? Are certain types of work,
by definition, minimum wage work — deserving payment at the minimum wage or
Early in the past century, some proposed a living, family, saving wage: that is,
to allow for safe and healthful living, for procreation, and for setting aside a little for
one’s old age. Still, there were problems with definitions. How safe and how
healthful? How much procreation: one child, two, or perhaps five or six? Setting
aside a little for one’s old age may be appropriate, but how much?
A “Living Wage” and Basic Sustenance
John A. Ryan, an early proponent of a minimum wage, argued in a 1906 study
that a “laborer’s right to a Living Wage is the specific form of his generic right to ...
sufficient of the earth’s products to afford him a decent livelihood.” This right,
Father Ryan suggested “... is as valid as his right to life: the difference is merely in
degree of importance.”3 Later, Ryan asked rhetorically: “Well, what is a decent
With other scholars of the period, Ryan was willing to suggest at least a modest
framework by way of answer — if the concept remained vague and, perhaps,
arguable. It involved “... something more than the necessaries which will enable a
worker to function effectively as an instrument of production....” And, further:
... that amount of goods which will enable a human being to live as a human
being rather than as an animal, even a well fed animal. It supposes that he shall
have food, clothing and shelter sufficient to maintain him and his family in
health, and that they shall have the means of some recreation.... It means the
requisites of a religious and moral life; ... It means also some opportunities for
intellectual development, some reading matter, and at least an elementary
education for the children. In general, therefore, it comprises an elementary
degree of physical, mental, moral, religious, social and recreational welfare.
But then, Ryan added, when the concept is presented in terms of money, men
“...naturally differ considerably one from the other, and yet whenever the thing has5
been systematically undertaken men have been able to come to an agreement.”
Other scholars seemed equally sure. “[D]ifferences of opinion” may develop
“over the concrete question of how much in any given case this wage must be,”
observed economist Henry R. Seager in 1918, but “the principle that a wage
sufficient to maintain the wage earner and his family in full economic efficiency will
3 John A. Ryan, A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects (New York: The
Macmillan Company, 1906), p. 324.
4 John A. Ryan, Social Reconstruction (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920), p. 65.
(Cited, hereafter, as Ryan, Social Reconstruction.)
5 John A. Ryan, Social Reconstruction, pp. 65-66.
be denied by no one.” Seager declared: “The living wage is thus an indeterminate but
highly important basic standard which all wage adjustment boards should have in
Wage Boards vs. a Fixed Rate
In 1890, the Consumers’ League of the City of New York was established and
quickly blossomed into the National Consumers’ League.7 Its general purpose was
social uplift. Through the next several years, League representatives began a
systematic exploration of the plight of low-wage workers, attempting to connect an
inadequate wage with malnutrition and vice.
Gradually, attention came to focus upon the minimum wage. In 1911,
Massachusetts became the first state to move for adoption of a minimum rate; the
campaign then spread to Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and other states.
The experiment was new to the United States, though it had been tried elsewhere.
After considerable discussion, a wage board approach was taken. Speaking generally
(because there were differences among the states and, in some states, other processes
were utilized), the board would examine an industry and if it found that a significant
body of workers was being paid less than what was considered minimal, a new
standard might be adopted. In one case (Massachusetts), the penalty was moral
suasion: publicity concerning the failure to pay a minimum wage.
The purpose of the boards was to increase the general standard and, then, to
maintain the value of the minimum wage at a constant level or, at least, at a level in
keeping with the cost-of-living. As one advocate stated: “None of the American
boards ever arrived at the intelligent arrangements achieved by some of the British
trade boards of ‘pegging the rate’ at a given period by providing for its automatic
increase and decrease with variation in the cost-of-living index number.”8
Nonetheless, the cost-of-living connection was a very real presence throughout.
During the early years of the minimum wage movement, there was always the
threat that a statute would be declared unconstitutional. In the spring of 1937, the
Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Washington state labor standards statute, triggering
6 Henry R. Seager, Labor and Other Economic Essays, edited by Charles A. Gulick, Jr.
(New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931), pp. 311-312. Seager was speaking in
New York in December 1918, at the annual meeting of the Academy of Political Science.
7 In general, see Landon R. Y. Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers’
League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
8 Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong, Insuring the Essentials: Minimum Wage Plus Social
Insurance, A Living Wage Program. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932 pp. 58-
73. See also: James Boyle, The Minimum Wage and Syndicalism: An Independent Survey
of the Two Latest Movements Affecting American Labor (Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd
Company, 1913), pp. 59-70; and Victor P. Morris, Oregon’s Experience with Minimum
Wage Legislation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1930), pp. 102-106.
a new round of minimum wage initiatives.9 Given the new spirit of the Court,
wage/hour legislation was promptly adopted by the Senate. In the House, various
versions of the measure moved slowly and, only in the summer of 1938,
notwithstanding the continuing Depression, was the Fair Labor Standards Act
adopted and sent on to the White House (P.L. 75-718).
In the beginning, the FLSA adopted both a fixed rate basis of calculation and
the wage board approach. For covered workers (relatively few in number, mostly
industrial workers), the basic rate was 25 cents an hour, to rise in steps to 40 cents
an hour seven years from the date of enactment. At the same time, in order to reach
a “universal minimum wage of 40 cents an hour” as rapidly “as is economically
feasible without substantially curtailing employment,” the Administrator of the new
wage/hour board “shall from time to time convene” an industry committee for each
industry where an increase would seem to be justified.10
PART II. FOCUSING ON INDEXATION
During 1937 and 1938 when the future FLSA was under consideration by the
Congress, tensions arose that kept the bill from being enacted in its initial form.
Speaking generally, a compromise was developed that allowed the several parties to
claim victory in the negotiations. The northern states would have preferred a higher
wage (40 cents an hour); the south agreed to settle for 25 cents an hour — leading up
to 40 cents some years later. Representative Mary Norton (D-NJ), then chair of the
Committee on Labor, argued that “a bill of this kind is very necessary if we are going
to help the underpaid workers of our country, reduce the relief rolls, and spread
House Hearings in 1947
In the wake of World War II, given escalating costs of living, it seemed to some
an appropriate time for expansion of coverage under the act. But in precisely what
manner (and under what mechanism) remained unclear.
9 West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (300 U.S. 379). See John W. Chambers, “The Big Switch:
Justice Roberts and the Minimum-Wage Cases,” Labor History, Winter 1969, pp. 44-72.
10 See Section 8 of Public Law 75-718. The wage board concept has been variously used
in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and remains part of the process in American Samoa.
See CRS Report RL30235, Minimum Wage in the Territories and Possessions of the United
States: Application of the Fair Labor Standards Act, by William G. Whittaker.
11 Congressional Record, May 23, 1938, p. 7279. During floor debate in the House,
Representative Fred Lewis Crawford (R-MI) proposed an amendment that would have
indexed the putative minimum wage to “the Department of Labor Price Index.” Ms. Norton
rose in opposition and the amendment was rejected. No other comment was made. See
Congressional Record, May 24, 1938, pp. 7417-7418.
Mary Norton, who had moved on to another assignment, returned to testify at
the FLSA hearings. Like other witnesses, Norton cited the difficulties of surviving
with a wage, in 1947, of 40 cents an hour. Ovie C. Fisher (D-TX) asked if she were
opposed to inflation. “Definitely,” she replied, but then: “... I do not think 65 cents
an hour will ever bring about inflation, with the present cost of living in this
Samuel McConnell, Jr. (R-PA), chair of the Subcommittee, then turned to Ms.
Norton with a series of questions concerning motivation. “Frankly,” Mrs. Norton
stated, “... the 65-cent minimum that I have selected does not meet with what I think
is necessary. I simply set that figure because I felt that the Congress might consider
that rather then a 75-cent minimum ....”13 Chairman McConnell queried: “What
would be the factors, in your mind, that would determine a minimum-wage rate.”
Norton replied: “... first of all, the high cost of living.” The dialogue continued:
Mr. McCONNELL. What kind of a cost of living? Would you consider the
cost of living for the entire country, or the cost of living in a certain section?
Mrs. NORTON. It is the cost of living for those people who are
unorganized and have no other method of having their wages raised.
McConnell continued to press for specifics. “You are definite, then, in your opinion,
that the minimum wage is to be based on the cost of living, and you will stand by
that?” Mrs. Norton opined: “Yes, sir; I believe that should definitely be considered.”
Mr. McCONNELL. What I am getting at is, I would like to get a cost-of-
living index, and fluctuate the minimum wages to that cost-of-living index, rather
than relying on some political drive every so often to change it.
Mrs. NORTON. How could you do that? It would mean you would have
to come to Congress every couple of months to decide.
Mr. McCONNELL. No, no; not come to Congress at all. I would set up a
formula in the nature of a ratio that would fluctuate minimum-wage rates
according to the cost of living.
If we assume that is the way we are going to fix our minimum-wage rates,
then we would have automatic fluctuations according to the change in the cost
of living at different periods.
Mrs. Norton agreed: “... I would be willing to go along with that.” McConnell
concurred. “I am assuming we would set it correctly in the beginning, and then there
would be an automatic fluctuation according to the cost of living. If we are working
on the assumption that the minimum wage rate is to be determined by the cost-of-
living index, or by the cost of living,” McConnell stated, “any way you want to say
it, that is the way it would be handled.” Then, he added: “... I have not stated my
12 U.S. Cong., House, Minimum Wage Standards, Hearings before the Committee on
Education and Labor, Subcommittee No. 4, Wages and Hours of Labor, 80th Cong., 1st Sess.,
June 27, 1947, ff. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947, pp. 46-47 (Cited hereafter as
House Hearings, 1947.)
13 House Hearings, 1947, p. 47.
own opinion on this matter — I am trying to get from the witnesses just what they
consider is the main factor in setting a minimum wage rate.”14
Senator Taft Makes a Suggestion (1949)
On April 11, 1949, Labor Secretary Maurice Tobin was questioned by Senator
Robert A. Taft (R-OH) about “another kind of escalator clause” — “...one which was
based on wages, on general average wages, as determined by the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, say something like 60 percent.”15
Taft had calculated the impact of a 75 cent minimum. “You might have to vary
it in different types of industries,” he said. “What would you think of a minimum
wage based on that theory? Sixty percent of the average wages in the field — I
would think you would have to have broad fields.” Tobin queried: “Take, for
example, shoes, and establish the minimum?” Taft continued:
Manufacturing and perhaps service industries and perhaps mining. That might
be separate, but roughly speaking, I think you probably would not need mining.
What would you think of such a plan? It seems to me that is what we want to do.
We want to say that anybody in an industry ought to be able to make a certain
percentage of the average, even though he is inefficient, or the industry is
inefficient, or anything else, and 60 percent, roughly speaking, seems to be the
present thing in the manufacturing field.
What would you think of such an escalator clause?
Taft may have caught Tobin off-guard.
Secretary TOBIN... I would like to illustrate by taking, for example, the
break-down of any given classification of skill. Take shoes. There is a great,
wide range of minimum wages for shoe cutters over the country. You get a
break-down of men’s work shoes, high-grade finished shoes, et cetera.
Senator TAFT. We have this legislative problem. We have a 75-cent
figure. Here is a 40-cent figure. When it once gets into the law, it is pretty much
frozen. You have these variations in your industries. That is all right.
However, as a basic figure in the law, instead of having to change the
amount every other year to fit into changing conditions, could we not find a
formula based on the average wages paid to all American workers, or something
of that kind?
Secretary TOBIN. I would want to consider that. I couldn’t give you an
Senator TAFT. I wish you would, because I think it is a possible legislative
Secretary TOBIN. Under such an arrangement, you would take the factory
wage, which is roughly around $55 a week at the present time. Rather, the
14 House Hearings, 1947, pp. 47-50.
15 U.S. Cong., Senate, Fair Labor Standards Act Amendments of 1949, Hearings before a
Subcommittee of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, 81st Cong., 1st Sess., April
11, 1949, ff. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949, pp. 43-46. (Cited hereafter as Senate
Hearings, 1949.) Because of Taft’s standing in the Republican Party, this discussion (and
Taft’s suggestion) has frequently been cited by subsequent proponents of indexation.
average factory wage is $1.38 an hour; 60 percent of that would come out to 82.4
cents an hour.
Senator TAFT. That is factory. Service would be somewhat lower.
Secretary TOBIN. Service employees would be substantially lower.
Senator Taft urged the Secretary to “think it over” and to “give us your views on it
later.” Tobin agreed that he would do so. Taft concluded that the average wage cost
was more appropriate than the “cost of living.”16
Reports and Amendments (1949)
There has been, advised Representative Brooks Hays (D-AR) in 1949,
“considerable interest in the so-called flexibility feature of the minimum-wage
legislation.” He noted the dispute as to whether the appropriate minima was “75 cents
or 65 cents or some other amount” but, he added, “... in any event it seems to me that
it should be governed by the cost of living.” Hays continued:
If we had had such a provision [i.e., a cost of living formulation] when the 1938
act was adopted, we would now have a minimum of around 54 cents on one
formula or 65 cents on another formula, and we would be spared this unfortunate
controversy as to whether or not it is to go to 75 cents....
He then turned to a study by Gustav Peck of the Legislative Reference Service (now,
CRS), The Question of a Flexible Statutory Minimum Wage. Peck, Hays stated, “has
assembled all of the arguments, pro and con, for tying the minimum wage to the cost
of living index.” He suggested that Peck’s study would be “of particular interest to
Members who favor the principle of flexibility in minimum-wage legislation.”17
The Peck Report. “A characteristic of all wages in a progressive society is
their flexibility,” Peck commenced. “Wages go up and down at different times in
response to changes in the labor market situation, to changes in productivity and job
content, to relative bargaining power, to cyclical influences, and to changes in the
cost of living.” Peck continued:
A rise or fall in the cost of living changes the substance of a statutory minimum
wage more than such a rise or fall affects other wages, because contract or
competitive wages generally reflect changes in the cost of living while a legal
minimum wage can not be changed at all except by action of the legislature or,
in the case of wage-board determinations, only after time-consuming18
Congress had “resisted attempts to raise the minimum wage” and even during the 79th
and 80th Congresses (post-war Congresses), “efforts to raise the 40-cent minimum
16 Senate Hearings, 1949, pp. 46-47.
17 Congressional Record, August 3, 1949, p. 10691.
18 Gustav Peck, The Question of a Flexible Statutory Minimum Wage, Library of Congress,
Legislative Reference Service, Bulletin No. 73, July 1949, p. 3. (Cited hereafter as Peck,
died of inaction.”19 Labor spokesmen had sought “flexibility” but always “upward.”
First, they called for general revision of the minimum to make the act “‘more
realistic.’” Second, they proposed insertion of “an escalator in any new law.”20
Arguments in support of a revision of the minimum wage, he stated, include
“increases in the cost of living, increases in actual minimum wages in industry,
increases in profits and ability to pay, and general increases in productivity.”
Generally, the cost-of-living was regarded as “the most important determinant of a
proper statutory minimum.” Further, some argued, “[i]f prices should decline,” then
“there should be some provision in any new act to reduce the minimum wage with
reductions in prices and the cost of living or ... reductions in average wages.”21
Under the 1938 statute, a limited wage board had been created.22 Some argued,
however, that a board might not be able to move any more quickly than Congress to
increase the minimum wage. For a board, there would likely be “delay of recognition
of a changed situation,” “delay of fact-finding and hearings,” and “delay of issuing
revised orders.” Thus, throughout the late 1930s and during the war years, the
problem of statutory minimum wages remained “one of catching up with the realities
of increasing prices and the cost of living.” Peck continued:
The Wage Board technique, at least as employed in the States, is not a
complete answer to the flexibility problem because these laws were written with
the express intent of raising minimum wages above the levels then being paid....
Even though it might be possible under the terms of some of the laws to make
findings which would require downward adjustments of the minimum wage, no23
such adjustments have ever been made.
Inflexible costs, he stated, could produce a “contraction of industry and employment”
and end “in the midst of a real depression.”24 He seemed to suggest that if wage rates
could move either up or down (real flexibility), then indexation might be worth trying
— so long as the timing was right and changes in the rate were not precipitous.25
19 Congressional Quarterly News Features, Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 81st
Congress, 1st Session, 1949. p. 435.
20 Peck, The Question, p. 7.
21 Peck, The Question, p. 8.
22 A wage board would be phased out for all but Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and most
other off-shore dependencies — but that was not clear when Peck wrote.
23 Peck, The Question, pp. 10-11.
24 Peck, The Question, pp. 15-16.
25 Peck notes, The Question, p. 18, that “a frequently changing minimum wage is very
difficult to administer,” that “it takes time to get across to all employers what their
obligations are,” could make “compliance and enforcement more difficult....”
The Lucas Amendment. On April 14, 1949, Representative Wingate Lucas
(D-TX) introduced a new minimum wage bill which contained “the Hays-McConnell26
flexible minimum” which he stated was “a splendid” concept.
As the summer wore on, Lucas presented a series of brief statements on the
floor, promoting the flexible minimum wage bill. He explained:
It ties minimum wages in our law to the cost of living index so that wages will
go up in time of inflation and go down in time of deflation. There will be
stabilized employment. It is the best answer I have ever heard for a legal,
equitable, and fair minimum wage.
Lucas drew attention to the Peck study and urged Members “to get a copy and read
it.”27 He hoped others would be “as enthusiastic about this plan as I am.”28
Debate began on August 8. Lucas stated: “If the employee can receive
sufficient funds for his labor to provide him with rudimentary standards of decency,
... we will have reached our objective.”29 Representative Adolph Sabath (D-IL)
challenged the “great stress” that Lucas has placed on “the sliding-scale provision of
his proposed substitute” which “would mean nothing but uncertainty and
confusion.”30 At this point, Lucas introduced his substitute which, among other
things, provided for a minimum wage of 65 cents an hour with indexation to follow.31
There seemed a dispute among constituencies. “All employee groups, so far
as I know, favor the fixed rather than the flexible minimum,” stated Representative
Kenneth Keating (R-NY). “So far as I remember, not a single employer has voiced
a preference for the sliding minimum.”32 Representative Jacob Javits (R-NY) was
similarly disposed: “When we are fixing a minimum wage and a concrete floor, it
must be a fixed figure and it should not vary with the cost-of-living index.”33
Representative Charles Bennett (D-FL) was, in some measure, prescient. He
stated that he had “no quarrel with the amount of 75 cents an hour” but urged certain
safeguards. First. Some arrangement would be needed for “an exemption for small
and marginal businesses.” Second. There should be a “regional basis of arriving at
26 Congressional Record, April 14, 1949, p. 4627.
27 Congressional Record, July 27, 1949, p. 10289.
28 Congressional Record, August 5, 1949, p. 10844.
29 Congressional Record, August 8, 1949, pp. 11004-11005.
30 Congressional Record, August 9, 1949, p. 11126.
31 Congressional Record, August 9, 1949, p. 11128. The device for indexation, here, was
the Consumer Price Index for Moderate-Income Families in Large Cities. Lucas added to
his amendment: “That in no event shall the minimum hourly wage prescribed by the
Administrator be less than 50 cents an hour.”
32 Congressional Record, August 10, 1949, p. 11197. See industry comments in the section
on the Ellender amendment, below.
33 Congressional Record, August 10, 1949, p. 11204.
minimum wages, for it is clear that the cost of living varies greatly between various
sections of our country.” Third. The minimum wage would need to be tied “to a
cost-of-living formula....” Bennett continued: “I strongly favor the principle of tying
the minimum wage to the cost-of-living formula, which principle is found in the
Lucas bill now before us.”34
Through a complex parliamentary maneuver, a bill by Representative John
Lesinski (D-MI) was substituted for the text of the Lucas bill and was adopted by the
House. In the process, the flexible minimum wage provision was defeated.35
The Ellender Amendment (1949). Senator Allen Ellender (D-LA)
proposed his own addition to Lucas/Lesinski debate.36 Elected to the Senate in 1936,
he recalled the turbulence that had marked the Depression Era and the war years, and
observed: “The fact is ... that 10 years of experience” under the FLSA “are virtually
worthless as a measuring stick of the probable effects of increasing the present wage
minimum.”37 Ellender stated that we “... proceed with the utmost caution and
circumspection” lest our actions produce a “decline in employment, prices and
production, and plunge the Nation into a recession or a major depression.”38
On August 31, 1949, with some caution, Ellender proposed indexation of the
federal minimum wage. Using a variation on the Consumer Price Index, he urged
an increase of the minimum wage (then still 40 cents an hour) to 65 cents an hour
— but with a ban of flexibility built into its future calculation. He added that “...in
no event shall the minimum hourly wage prescribed by the Administrator be less than39
Ellender’s introductory speech seemed at odds with the thrust of his proposal.
He explained the ripple effect (the impact of the minimum wage on other wage
differentials) and reviewed the southern case against the minimum wage. He had
reached the 65 cent level, he stated, because, had the original 40 cent figure been
indexed, “that 40-cent minimum would be about equivalent to a 66-cent minimum
today.”40 Ellender stated that proposed changes have been considered by “... at least
three Congresses; and as yet no change has been effected. The legislative process,”
he stated, “is too slow and too cumbersome.” For many of the same reasons, he
objected to wage board procedures “for effecting changes in statutory wage minima.”
34 Congressional Record, August 10, 1949, p. 11205.
35 See Congressional Quarterly News Features, Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 81st
Congress, 1st Session, 1949, pp. 434-441.
36 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, p. 12537.
37 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, p. 12536.
38 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, pp. 12537-12538.
39 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, p. 12535. Senator Ellender used the Consumer
Price Index for Moderate-Income Families in Large Cities.
40 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, p. 12539. Ellender stated: “But instead of
making it 66 cents, the proponents of the pending bill want to increase it to 75 cents.”
Ellender critiqued various indexes and then concluded that the Consumers’ Price
Index for Moderate-Income Families “is appropriate, feasible and practicable.”41
Ellender read into the record testimony that seemed to endorse an up-or-down
principle of escalation. For example, Jack Garrett Scott, general counsel of the
National Associations of Motor Bus Operators:
We urge that serious consideration be given to a statutory plan whereby the
minimum wage is geared to living costs, both upward and downward, based upon
indices of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and subject to change each year by the
Administrator according to the cost-of-living figures compiled and presented by
that Bureau.” (Italics added.)
Howard B. Carlisle, Jr., the American Cotton Manufacturers’ Association, was cited.
During other distressed periods we reduced wages, but many mills managed to
keep going.... The workers accepted these reductions because they preferred
wage cuts to unemployment. But with a high minimum wage the mills cannot
meet conditions realistically. If hard times come, they will have to shut down
and throw their men out of work.
Finally, the views of Donald Kirkpatrick, general counsel for the American Farm
Bureau Federation, were added to the record. The AFBF, he stated:
... has directed its executive officers to oppose without compromise any increase
in the maximum basic wage that is not tied to a cost-of-living index. Using the
existing minimum-wage base ... would under a flexible formula, substantially
increase the basic minimum wage. Under our proposal if the cost-of-living index
goes up or down, then the basic minimum wage would be adjusted accordingly
by the Administrator under a formula provided in the law. The American Farm
Bureau Federation believes this to be sensible and sound in approach; one that
will not strait-jacket our economy; ...” (Italics added.)
In summing up, Senator Ellender argued that his plan was the only sensible one to
be adopted. “There must be flexibility in respect to any wage law enacted.”42 (See
Table 1 for the rates of change over the years.)
Others disagreed — notably, Senator Taft. Taft thought “75 cents an hour is a
reasonable minimum wage” but suggested that some form of indexation might “be
studied as a basis for minimum wages in the future.... We have had no expert advice
on the subject.” He continued: “Personally, I feel that the cost of living is not the
proper basis for determining wages. The cost of living has always seemed to me to
be an uncertain factor. It affects people in different ways. The cost of living for a
man without a family is about half of the cost of living for a family of four.” Taft
41 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, pp. 12540-12541. Ellender placed in the Record
extensive evaluation of the Consumer Price Index. Under the Ellender proposal, indexation
would permit a rise (or a fall) in tandem with the CPI.
42 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, p. 12553.
added: “If there is a sliding scale, I should prefer to see it related to the general wage
level in the United States, rather than to the cost of living.”43
On the Ellender amendment, the vote was 26 yeas to 51 nays (nineteen Members
not voting).44 As soon as the vote was announced, the Senator reintroduced a new
amendment which was “identical with the one just voted upon except that instead of
fixing the minimum at 65 cents, it is fixed at 70 cents.” Once more, the amendment
lost: 25 yeas to 51 nays (twenty Members not voting).45 But, in 1949, the minimum
wage was raised to 75 cents an hour. [See Table 1, below, for the various minimum
wage (FLSA) enactments from 1938 through 1997.]
Table 1. Federal Minimum Wage Rates, 1938-2009
Public lawEffective dateRate
P.L. 75-718 (Enacted June 25, 1938)October 1938$0.25
P.L. 81-393 (Enacted October 26, 1949)January 19500.75
P.L. 84-381 (Enacted August 12, 1955)March 19561.00
P.L. 87-30 (Enacted May 5, 1961)September 19611.15
P.L. 89-601 (Enacted September 23, 1966)February 19671.40
P.L. 93-259 (Enacted April 8, 1974)May 19742.00
P.L. 95-151 (Enacted November 1, 1977)January 19782.65
P.L. 101-157 (Enacted November 17, 1989)April 19903.80
P.L. 104-188 (Enacted August 20, 1996)October 19964.75
P.L. 110-28 (Enacted May 25, 2007)July 20075.85
43 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, p. 12563.
44 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, p. 12567.
45 Congressional Record, August 31, 1949, p. 12568.
The initial minimum wage (1938) was enacted as the United States was coming
out of the Great Depression and just as it was about to enter World War II. Though
it appears to have had little disruptive impact, the circumstances may not have been
ideal for a test. The 1949 amendments may have been, similarly, obscured by the
War in Korea. Thus, as Congress considered new legislation that would adjust the
minimum wage, it seems to have done so with some measure of circumspection.
The 1955 FLSA Amendments
In the 84th Congress, Members were confronted with a range of exemptions,
exceptions, and a potential for a significant FLSA expansion. But, according to
Representative Graham Barden (D-NC), then chairman, “the committee unanimously
decided to consider two items at this time”: the rate of the hourly wage and the date
that an increase should become effective.46
Senator Paul Douglas (D-IL) reported the measure (S. 2168). In proposing a
$1.00 an hour minimum wage (the Eisenhower Administration had asked for 90
cents), two factors were of influence, he stated: “the increase in the cost of living”
and “the increase in productivity.” Taking these increases into account, he stated, the
minimum wage should be raised to just over $1.00 an hour. Douglas explained:
In times past the Fair Labor Standards Act has suffered, and perhaps it
suffers at this moment, from the fact that revisions are made sporadically. The
[last] increase was postponed from 1944 to 1949; therefore, instead of a gradual
increase, a jump was then made from 40 cents to 75 cents.
Douglas sought a rate not “too severe for many industries and many firms to absorb”
and urged a new “method of easier transition to higher schedules in the future.”
Rather than index the wage rate, per se, he proposed writing into DOL’s reporting
requirements a mandate that the Secretary make “recommendations” as to “any
changes which may have occurred in the cost of living, changes in productivity,
changes in the levels of wages and manufacturing....” The recommendations, he47
stated, “will make it possible for Congress to act more quickly in the future....” The
measure was promptly adopted, with action now moving to the other chamber.
In the House, minimum wage legislation was called up on July 19 and 20, 1955.
Representative Samuel McConnell (R-PA), see the 1947 debates, stated: “For over
46 U.S. Cong., House, Amending the Fair Labor Standards Act to Make the Minimum Wage
$1 an Hour Effective March 1, 1956, Report To Accompany H.R. 7214, Report No. 1095,thst
84 Cong., 1 Sess., July 11, 1955, p. 2. See also U.S. Cong., Senate, Amending the Fair
Labor Standards Act of 1938 in Order to Increase the National Minimum Wage, Report No.thst
47 Congressional Record, June 8, 1955, p. 7868. Senator H. Alexander Smith (R-NJ)
proposed a three step increase in the rate leading to $1.00 an hour but the Smith proposal
was voted down. See ibid, pp. 7870 and 7873.
16 years [a] diligent search has been carried on to discover some scientific way to set
a proper minimum rate, but no exact method has been developed. The most frequent
factor mentioned,” he stated, “is the cost of living [the Consumer Price Index].”48
But, with only that oblique reference to indexing, debate moved on to now familiar
discussions of inflation, unemployment and regional concerns.
Following two days of debate, the House passed a stripped down stand-alone
$1.00 minimum wage increase (362 ayes to 54 nays) — sending the bill back to the
Senate.49 Ultimately, the bill was adopted (P.L. 84-381).
The 1960s and Early 1970s
The 1949 and 1955 amendments to the FLSA had been contentious but
relatively uncomplicated. The 1961 amendments “extended the minimum-wage and
(with some exceptions) the overtime provisions of the Act to an estimated 3,624,000
additional workers.”50 In 1966, the FLSA extended coverage “to 9.1 million workers
not previously covered” by the minimum wage.51 In 1974, new legislation brought
“approximately 7 million employees, including domestics,” under coverage.52 As a
result of the three enactments, the minimum wage moved from $1.00 per hour to
$2.30 per hour, the latter taking effect in January 1976.
Through the years following enactment of the FLSA, as noted above, indexation
had been a more-or-less reoccurring theme. But the issue does not appear to have
come up in a sustained fashion during consideration in 1961, 1966, and 1974.
48 Congressional Record, July 20, 1955, p. 11063.
49 Congressional Record, July 20, 1955, pp. 11087-11088.
50 CQ Almanac: 1961, “Kennedy Wins Minimum Wage Victory,” Congressional Quarterly
Inc, Washington, 1961, pp. 471-482. See also Milton C. Denbo, “The Fair Labor Standards
Amendments of 1961: An Analysis,” Labor Law Journal, 1961, pp. 731-738.
51 CQ Almanac: 1966, “Expansion of Minimum Wage Law Approved,” Congressional
Quarterly Inc., Washington, 1967, pp. 821-830. See also: Edward C. Martin, “Extent of
Coverage under FLSA as Amended in 1966,” Monthly Labor Review, April 1967, pp. 21-24;
Susan Kocin, “Basic Provisions of the 1966 FLSA Amendments,” Monthly Labor Review,
March 1967, p. 1-4; and Jack Karlin, “Economic Effects of the 1996 Changes in the FLSA,”
Monthly Labor Review, June 1967, pp. 21-25.
52 CQ Almanac: 1974, “Nixon Signs Minimum Wage Increase,” Congressional Quarterly
Inc., Washington, 1975, pp. 239-244.
PART III. DEVELOPING LEGISLATION:
THE 1970s AND EARLY 1980s
The 1975 Indexation Proposal
In 1975, Representative John Dent (D-PA), chair of the Subcommittee on Labor
Standards, introduced H.R. 10130, a bill that would have increased the minimum
wage, in steps, to $3.00 per hour. Thereafter, an indexation formula, based upon the
Consumer Price Index (or CPI) would take effect.53 Noting the increase in the cost-
of-living, the AFL-CIO’s Andrew Biemiller, agreed. “Some such escalator provision
is essential if we are to maintain the purchasing power of the minimum wage....”54
John Erlenborn (R-IL), the Ranking Member, opposed indexation. You talk
about inflation “and the loss of purchasing power of the dollar and a need to index
the minimum wage so we can have automatic increases in it,” he chided Biemiller,
when “it is the wage demands of the people you represent that caused a good deal of
the inflation that we are experiencing. So,” he continued, “having caused the
problem, you now come here and seek relief from it.”55
The Hearing Proceeds
In some respects, organized labor, appearing as the lead witness, set the stage
for events that would follow. Much of the subsequent testimony represented a
Robert Thompson, speaking for the Chamber of Commerce, decried indexation
as “the most harmful and fiscally unsound provision” of the bill. He asserted that
“general application of an automatic cost-of-living escalator to minimum wage rates
would greatly exacerbate the inflationary process.” Thompson noted the upward
flexibility of the bill and protested its impact for training and other costs of doing
business. If indexation were agreed to, he suggested, a mechanism more suitable
than the CPI should be used.56 “We think that tying the minimum wage to the
Consumer Price Index will not only increase unemployment, but will feed the fires
of inflation like nothing this Congress has ever done.”57
53 U.S. Cong., House. Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1975, Hearings before the
Subcommittee on Labor Standards, Committee on Education and Labor, 94th Cong., 1st Sess.,
October 22, 1975, ff. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975, pp. 3-4. (Cited hereafter as
House Hearings, 1975.)
54 House Hearings, 1975, p. 8. See Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, October
55 House Hearings, 1975, pp. 12 and 14. .
56 House Hearings, 1975, pp. 43-45.
57 House Hearings, 1975, pp. 48-49. See also Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor
Report, October 23, 1975, p. A6.
Others were equally firm. Carl Madden, chief economist for the Chamber,
termed indexing “genuinely terrifying to me.”58 Indexing would be “a dangerous
precedent,” stated Donald White, American Retail Federation, adding “momentum
to the vicious cycle of inflation.”59 Carl Beck, of the National Small Business
Association, argued that the CPI was an inexact instrument through which to measure
relative wage rates and cited Julius Shiskin of BLS as his source. “I would suggest
you contact Mr. Shiskin because he feels very strongly about it....”60
Using “the CPI as a determinant in wage adjustments” under the minimum
wage, stated James McLamore, National Restaurant Association (NRA),”... would
represent a fundamental change in national policy....”61 NRA opposed the concept:
... removing any necessity for Congress to periodically examine minimum wage
rates would deny the existing opportunity for periodic examination of the
relationship between wages and inflation and remove an important warning
signal on the road to even higher inflation.
McLamore pointed to merit systems. “Such recognition is important to any increase
in productivity. We believe that making increases in the minimum wage automatic
with increases in the CPI,” he stated, “would soon destroy any merit increase system
or place it beyond the means of most employers.” Like others from industry,
McLamore urged that Congress “should not abdicate the important responsibility of62
weighing the many factors not reflected in the CPI.”
Abraham Weiss, then an Assistant Secretary of Labor, presented perhaps the
most extensive comment on indexation during the 1975 hearings — and much of it63
negative. Dent recognized the nature of DOL’s comment and observed that he was
“not tied to this particular bill....” 64 But, the Congressman added: “I sincerely
believe there has to be some mechanism other than periodic legislative enactments
if it is intended to put a floor under wages ... so that a worker in that particular65
category would not be forced to rely on food stamps and welfare payments.”
58 House Hearings, 1975, p. 55.
59 House Hearings, 1975, p. 75.
60 House Hearings, 1975, p. 80.
61 House Hearings, 1975, p. 91.
62 House Hearings, 1975, p. 92. See also Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report,
October 23, 1975, pp. A7-A8.
63 House Hearings, 1975, pp. 153-154, 185-186, and 188-189. For a discussion of Weiss’
testimony, see Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, November 6, 1975, pp. A16-
64 House Hearings, 1975, p. 191.
65 House Hearings, 1975, p. 192. But Dent, according to the Daily Labor Report, October
29, 1975, p. A5, “indicated ... that there is no great rush to do anything on the bill since
minimum wage increases already are scheduled” for next year.
With the close of the formal hearings, various submissions were made for the
record. Here, there seems to have been considerable interest in indexation.
The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, AFL-CIO, suggested: “One
of the problems” with the FLSA, “has been that the rates could not be adjusted for
some time after they had become obsolete.” The union urged “greater flexibility” and
suggested that “an escalator provision will provide this” but indicated that indexation
would “not obviate the necessity of revising the basic rate.” It seemed to suggest a
shift from the minimum wage, per se, to the rate/mechanism for its increase.66
The Associated General Contractors of America (the AGC), an industry group,
took an opposite approach describing indexation as “neither new” or “good” and, as
businessmen, we find the proposal “unbelievable.” Indexing, the AGC argued,
“legislates inflation and makes it permanent.”67 The Farm Bureau scorned indexation
as the “most radical and far-reaching” provision of the bill and “totally
unacceptable.”68 While Robert W. Hite, associated with Mr. Steak, Inc. (Denver),
termed the bill “ill-advised, poorly conceived, and fiscally irresponsible.”69
No Further Action
Yet one additional year had to run on the 1974 amendments. A new increase
in the minimum wage may not have seemed timely and, in September 1976,
Congressman Dent announced plans to hold back his bill until the 95th Congress70
(1977) when there would be more time to consider all aspects of the legislation.
66 House Hearings, 1975, p. 205.
67 House Hearings, 1975, pp. 209-210. See Sol Chaikin’s comments, House Hearings, 1975,
p. 213, and those of Robert W. Crawford, President of the Association of General
Merchandise Chains, House Hearings, 1975, p. 217.
68 House Hearings, 1975, pp. 219-221. See also House Hearings, 1975, pp. 225, 238, 240-
69 House Hearings, 1975, pp. 226-227.
70 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, September 8, 1976, p. A10.
The 1977 Indexation Proposals
In February 1977, Representative Dent introduced H.R. 3744, a bill to increase
the minimum wage, to repeal the tip credit, and to provide “an automatic adjustment
in such wage rate.” Diverse other provisions would be added.
Hearings in the House (1977)
With the opening of the hearings in the House (March 9, 1977), the first witness
was Andrew J. Biemiller of the AFL-CIO. Biemiller was followed by a series of
industry witnesses and, ultimately, by the new Labor Secretary Ray Marshall.
The Opening Witnesses. Biemiller had come directly from a meeting of the
AFL-CIO’s Executive Council. In reporting the views of the Council, he stated:
The Congress should act immediately to increase the Federal minimum wage to
$3 an hour and include an automatic mechanism in the law to thereafter maintain71
the wage floor at 60 percent of average hourly earnings in manufacturing.”
The Executive Council’s projection to $3.00 per hour, immediately, followed by
indexation at 60%, may have been unduly optimistic.
Biemiller affirmed that indexation (because such wages would be quickly spent,
of necessity) would boost the economy. There should be no youth sub-minimum
wage. As to the alleged disemployment impact of the minimum wage, he stated:
“We point to the record.” The several Secretaries of Labor had not suggested such
a result. Indeed, their reports “have shown substantial benefits and only rare, isolated
instances of adverse effects, involving a few small firms and very few employees.”72
As at prior hearings, a battery of industry witnesses followed Biemiller and
proceeded to offer refutation. “Use of manufacturing wages for indexing would add
especially to inflation because manufacturing wages have increased faster than
average wages during the last 10 years,” stated Jack Carlson, chief economist for the
71 U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Labor
Standards. Hearing. Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1977. 95th Cong., 1st Sess.,
March 9, 16, and 24, 1977. p. 6. (Hereafter cited as House Hearings, 1977.) Under the
Dent bill, the indexation formula would begin at 55% of the average hourly earnings on
manufacturing payrolls and expand, a year later, to 60% of average hourly earnings on such
Biemiller, a former Member of Congress from Wisconsin, in support of indexation (p.
9), recalled that “... an automatic escalator device was proposed by then-Senator Taft in the
course of the debate on the fair labor standards amendments as long ago as 1949. In fact,
he asked Secretary of Labor Tobin his reaction to setting minimum wages at 60 percent of
average wages in manufacturing. Senator Taft may have been ahead of his time — but the
AFL-CIO agrees with you that this is an idea whose time has certainly come.”
72 House Hearings, 1977, pp. 6-9.
Chamber of Commerce.73 John Hutchens, president, United States Industrial Council,
argued that indexing the minimum wage to “60 percent of average hourly earnings
in manufacturing” would result in a “never-ending inflationary spiral.”74 Similarly,
Patrick O’Malley of the National Restaurant Association viewed adoption of
indexation as “a major step toward adopting indexing as our national policy.”75
Dent had taken into account the economic impact of indexation and, for the
purposes of the hearings, had secured a panel of research economists generally
knowledgeable about the field. Their views, if somewhat negative, were diverse.76
Dent’s views were more pragmatic. “The minimum wage has always been a
catchup. By the time an increase is passed, it brings people back to even,” he said.
“It is just a question of doing nothing, doing something, or doing too much. In
between is where I would like to be.”77
Secretary Marshall Speaks for the Administration. The new Secretary
of Labor in the Carter cabinet, Ray Marshall, was an economist. Marshall began with
an analysis of the pending (Dent) bill.
We have carefully reviewed this proposal and believe that in light of
current economic conditions, a somewhat different approach is warranted at this
time. Accordingly, the administration proposes an increase in the minimum
wage to $2.50 per hour for all covered workers on July 1, 1977. We propose an
annual indexing of the minimum wage, beginning on July 1, 1978, at a rate equal
to 50 percent of straight time hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory
workers in manufacturing.
The Administration’s proposal would provide “for regular minimum wage increases
on a yearly basis.” He stated: “It would eliminate the irregular pattern which has
characterized the history of minimum wage adjustments” and would “enable the
business community to more accurately anticipate and adjust its wage costs” by
providing increases at “regularly established intervals.” Indexation would “reduce
erosion of the real income of recipients.” Noting that indexation “represents a major
73 House Hearings, 1977, p. 309.
74 House Hearings, 1977, p. 393.
75 House Hearings, 1977, p. 373.
76 Finis Welch of UCLA and William Dunkelberg of Purdue University seemed more
generally opposed to indexation. Edward Gramlich, the University of Michigan, was more
favorably inclined but ambivalent. “The main question,” Gramlich stated, “is whether the
nation’s interests are best served by having Congress reconsider minimum wage legislation
every two or three years ... or by indexing the minimum so as to eliminate the need for
periodic action.” For his part, he seemed to favor having Congress “reconsider the policy
every few years, armed with whatever new evidence or political views have accumulated in
the meantime.”House Hearings, 1977, p. 236. See also, ibid, pp. 97 and 199. Dunkelberg
was also spokesperson for the National Federation of Independent Business.
77 House Hearings, 1977, p. 414.
departure from previous methods of adjusting the minimum wage,” Marshall urged
that the issue be studied with a report made to the Congress.78
Dent’s reply was immediate. “Your proposals are quite different than what this
Congress had hoped for in a new minimum wage law. However,” he added, “the
committee will, as it always does, give it very serious consideration.” Finally: “I
have no questions to ask.”79
Representative Erlenborn queried: You endorse “the concept of indexing” on
behalf of the Administration. “Would I be wrong in interpreting that statement to
indicate that you are reflecting an inflationary psychology in this administration that
it would tie this to an index?” And, might this become “a way of life that we must
anticipate.” The Secretary responded: “No, sir. It would not.”80
Others were equally critical. Representative Joseph Gaydos (D-PA), taking note
of the Secretary’s widely ranging interests in humane concerns, asked if he had “any
problems” in “drastically reducing and suspending an increase in minimum wage?”
Marshall responded: “It seems to me we are recommending no diminution in the
minimum wage — it is a lower increase than others would recommend here — but
the basic idea of having a minimum standard is there.” Gaydos replied that “... I am
disappointed ... I am grossly disappointed with the position that the Department takes
in this matter.”81 Representative Phillip Burton (D-CA) added: “I do hope that you
do not personally believe that this is an adequate treatment of the problem.”82
Congressman Dent stated: “Senator Taft advised that we ought to put minimum
wage on a permanent increment base and we ought to do it with 60 percent based on
the average hourly increase in manufacture.” At that rate, the minimum today would
be “about $3.36 per hour.” Dent added: “It is very difficult to conceive how the
economists of this administration could sit down and come up with this
recommendation which is so far out of line.”83
Hearings in the Senate (1977)
The Senate hearings began on July 28, 1977, on S. 1871, co-authored by Senator
Harrison Williams (D-NJ) and Jacob Javits (R-NY). The bill would have raised the
minimum wage to $2.65 an hour in January 1978 — and would, thereafter, have
indexed it, reaching 53 percent of the average hourly earnings formula (AHE).84
78 House Hearings, 1977, pp. 475-478
79 House Hearings, 1977, p. 478.
80 House Hearings, 1977, pp. 480-481.
81 House Hearings, 1977, pp. 485-486.
82 House Hearings, 1977, p. 494.
83 House Hearings, 1977, p. 486.
84 U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Human Services, Subcommittee on Labor,
Hearing, Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1977, 95th Cong., 1st Sess., July 28; August
“Inflation takes its toll on everyone, but poor workers and their families, who
must spend everything they earn merely to get by,” Senator Williams stated, “feel its
effects much more sharply than other workers in our society.”85 Senator Javits
reluctantly concurred. Normally, he stated, he had been “opposed to indexing” as a
means for fighting inflation; but, we find that “... many collective bargaining
agreements are indexed, social security is indexed, and many veterans’ benefits are
indexed, I do not see how we can avoid it in this situation.” Senator Javits added: it
“offers the advantage to employers of regular, predictable wage rate adjustments.”86
Secretary Marshall Speaks for the Administration. Marshall was the
lead witness. “There was considerable disagreement over our initial approach,”
Marshall stated. Since then, the Administration had discussed the issue with
Members of Congress, labor and industry groups, and the President has “... agreed
with the minimum wage proposal which is now included in your bill, and in the bill87
moving through the House of Representatives.” Indexation, Marshall suggested,
was an important aspect of this bill. It would “protect minimum-wage workers” and88
“enable employers to plan and to anticipate adjustments” to their pay systems.
Later, Javits questioned why the particular pattern for indexation had been
chosen: was this “an eclectic choice.” Marshall replied: “... the reason that we use
the straight time hourly earnings in manufacturing is that it is a better statistical
measure ... it is uninfluenced by a lot of extraneous factors, and it gets less feedback89
from the minimum wage process itself....”
The Hearings Continue, Pro and Con. Hearings in the Senate were
extensive. Following the initial statement from the Administration, there appeared
a series of witnesses representing labor and industry and simply individuals.
General Views of Labor and Industry. “In early 1977,” AFL-CIO
president George Meany recalled, “the AFL-CIO Executive Council urged the
Congress to increase the minimum wage to $3 an hour and to include an automatic
mechanism in the act which would maintain the minimum wage at 60 percent of
average hourly earnings in manufacturing. That recommendation,” he stated, “was
— and is — fair and reasonable.”
Meany continued that, under the current system, “minimum wage workers sink
further into poverty and the ‘real’ value of their wage is eroded.” The putative value
of $2.65 an hour “... is less than we would like, but the prospect of bringing the
85 Senate Hearings, 1977, p. 1.
86 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 10-11.
87 Senate Hearings, 1977, p. 12.
88 Senate Hearings, 1977, p. 14.
89 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 28-29. On pages 57-64 of the hearings transcript, there appear
statistical comparisons of various methodologies for indexing the minimum wage.
minimum wage above the poverty level in the early 1980’s” and indexing thereafter
will “... be guaranteeing the low-wage worker a realistic wage floor that will keep
pace with general wage trends in the economy.”90
Robert Thompson again spoke for the Chamber of Commerce. He argued that
the “most dangerous and damaging part” of the proposed legislation was the
indexation formula. Thompson stated that the bill was “bad economic policy” with
a “robot-like mechanism” that fails to take into consideration “the underlying cost-
push problems in our economy and, furthermore, treats inflation as if it were a
permanent part of our economy.” He chided: “It is the responsibility of Congress to
review periodically the minimum wage law and relate it to the state of the economy.
An indexed minimum wage would represent a congressional abdication ....”91
Harwell Proffitt, associated with Proffitt’s Department Store, Alcoa, Tennessee,
proposed a study. “To my knowledge, there has never been a detailed study
undertaken to determine the likely economic, social, and political impact of indexing
the minimum wage. Indexing,” he stated, “has simply been offered as a supposedly
painless alternative to the recurring headache of deciding whether an increase in the
minimum wage is warranted.”92 Richard Wood, the National Association of
Convenience Stores, agreed: “Retailing strongly believes that the bill should provide
for the establishment of a Presidential Blue Ribbon Study Commission....”93
Views from the Economic Community. The Senate hearings, at mid-
session, were given over to select economists. Two panels testified: one of generally
liberal economists and a second, generally, more conservative.
Robert R. Nathan, a consulting economist, was chairman, the National
Consumers League. Nathan explained the economics and purchasing power of the
minimum wage and observed that he would “... strongly favor the indexing provision
because it does seem to me appropriate for the minimum wage level to take into94
consideration improvement factors in our economy.” In his prepared statement,
Nathan observed that indexation has “been adopted in government and business to
cover a large proportion of wage and salary workers. Certainly,” he stated, “the most
poorly paid American workers are entitled to at least as much protection from wage95
erosion as the more highly paid workers.”
90 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 94-95.
91 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 141-143.
92 Senate Hearings, 1977, p. 189. Proffitt suggested (p. 191) that “... we can be sure if
indexing is adopted there will be continued political pressure to raise the percentage of
average manufacturing earnings from 53 percent to some higher figure, to include overtime
earnings and fringe benefits in the measure of average manufacturing earnings, et cetera.”
93 Senate Hearings, 1977, p. 204. See also, the statement of Donald F. White, American
Retail Federation, pp. 202-203.
94 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 414-416.
95 Senate Hearings, 1977, p. 422.
Walter Galenson, professor of economics, Cornell University, began by noting
that the hearing marked the 40th anniversary of the FLSA. Citing other economists,
he suggested that there was still “‘virtually no reliable quantitative work’” on the
minimum wage. “One of the difficulties,” he stated, with respect to most of the
studies “... is that they are based upon macroeconomic data, and that heroic
assumptions are necessary in order to distill out the effects of economic
developments that are occurring simultaneously.” In the interim, he stated:
About all we can do is to make some tentative observations based upon a
reading of our past experience, and to put in a reminder that for 40 years, the Fair
Labor Standards Act has been of considerable benefit to many of the lowest paid
in our society without having had any apparently harmful effects on the
Galenson was “not a partisan of the general concept of wage indexing. It has led to
many difficulties in countries that have practiced it for long periods. But,” he
observed, “it is a fact that a great many American workers now enjoy indexing, by
collective agreement, and if any group in society needs this kind of protection, it is
the low paid. Many, if not most of them are not unionized, and do not have collective
bargaining machinery to prevent the erosion of their real incomes.”96
Sar Levitan, George Washington University, followed. Levitan stated that he
supported “the concept which will help prevent the erosion of minimum-wage
protection in the face of future inflation and other wage increases. However,” he
stated, “... I believe the index should be set at 50 percent of the average
manufacturing wage. More than 50 percent should not be attempted until we realize
tight labor markets.” The bill in question “is a workable compromise, and whatever
reservations I have about indexing above 50 percent, I support the bill,” he said.97
A second panel of economists followed.
“Automation escalation [sic] compounds the problems of the minimum wage
law,” argued Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution, “by making it possible to
close our eyes to its effects hereafter. This seems,” he advised, “unconscionable
when those affected are poor, vulnerable, powerless, and inarticulate.” He added:
If the Congress does not monitor what happens to them, there is no other
powerful institution to do so. The set of incentives confronting the U.S.
Department of Labor makes it unrealistic to expect it to critically evaluate
minimum wage effects, and nearly 40 years of history makes it painfully apparent
that it has no intention of doing so.
Sowell stated the need for a critical evaluation of the minimum wage and noted: “...
my hope would be that some way might be considered to have the statistical analysis
96 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 429-431.
97 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 431-432.
of minimum wage effects performed by some organization other than the agency
whose own fate is intertwined with that of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”98
Marvin Kosters, associated with the American Enterprise Institute, tended to
focus upon the youth sub-minimum wage and upon the more generalized impact of
wage rates on unemployment. He suggested that indexation might cause Congress
simply to set aside any further oversight of minimum wage issues. “... I believe that
the opportunity for the Congress to periodically reassess minimum wage policy
should be retained so that new research results and experience can be taken into
account.” He suggested that “establishing fixed increments is preferable to
indexation because it more readily permits reassessment and revision of minimum
wage policies in light of new information and experience.”99
Like Kosters, Walter Williams of Temple University tended to focus upon the
youth sub-minimum wage.100 “Indexing the minimum wage will reinforce the
unemployment effect of the rise in the minimum wage,” he stated. “One hope against
the predicted large increase in youth unemployment, should the proposed amendment
pass, is the inclusion of a significant youth differential.”101 Otherwise, Williams was
silent on indexation in his testimony before the Committee.
Legislation Is Considered
On September 14-15, 1977, minimum wage legislation was considered by the
House. Senate consideration of the measure would take place on October 6-7, 1977.
Debated in the House. Representative Phillip Burton called up the
minimum wage measure (H.R. 3744), sharing time with Representative Erlenborn102
— each of whom would play a critical role in subsequent debate. Representative
Carl Perkins (D-KY), chair, Committee on Education and Labor, introduced the bill
as reported. It would have raised the federal minimum wage to $2.65 per hour after
January 1, 1978, followed by indexation. The indexation formula, Perkins explained,
had been conservatively drawn: no overtime or incentive pay, no fringe benefits, and
a six-month lag between calculation and implementation.103
Erlenborn stated that he would offer an amendment on indexation. The bill
“substitutes a mindless, thoughtless rule” for the “good judgement” our constituents
have a right to expect from us. He continued:
98 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 453-457.
99 Senate Hearings, 1977, p. 460.
100 Senate Hearings, 1977, pp. 492-494.
101 Senate Hearings, 1977, p. 495.
102 Representative Dent was ill. Congressional Record, September 14, 1977, pp. 29172-
103 Congressional Record, September 14, 1977, p. 29179.
Instead of having the Congress look ... at the economic conditions, the rate of
unemployment, the rate of inflation and other factors in the economy and then
deciding whether and how much the minimum wage should be increased, the
concept of this bill is to substitute ... an indexing formula that will ever drive the
minimum wage up.
Enactment of the bill will “signal a surrender by the Congress ... to inflation as a way
of life....” Erlenborn proposed a series of step increases.104
Representative Quie, in support of the bill, explained the various technical
aspects of indexation. He argued that the bill was not “a mindless” exercise because
“... what we are doing is tying the minimum wage to forces in the economy,
management, labor, and manufacturing.” He concluded: “...I believe that that would
be a far wiser route for us than to operate in the way we have operated in the past.”105
On September 15, 1977, the first item was indexation. Erlenborn proposed as
a substitute for the reported language:
(1) not less than $2.65 an hour during the year beginning January 1, 1978, not
less than $2.85 an hour during the year beginning January 1, 1979, and not less
than $3.05 an hour after December 31, 1979, except as otherwise provided in this
Indexation would, thus, be removed. Erlenborn affirmed: “... I do not think that this
Congress can afford, economically or politically, to say that we are ready to guarantee
rates of inflation as high as we now experience and rates of inflation that will106
probably rise ever higher.” A recorded vote on the Erlenborn amendment resulted
in 223 ayes to 193 nays — stripping indexation from the bill.107
Once the vote had been tallied, Representative Perkins proposed an amendment
creating a Minimum Wage Study Commission. One portion read:
(C) the economic consequences (if any) of authorizing an automatic increase in
the rate prescribed in that Act [the FLSA] on the basis of an increase in an index
of the earnings of a category of employees; ...
Perkins had been a Member since 1949 “when we increased the minimum wage from
40 to 75 cents. We have increased it at various times up to $2.30 where it presently
is.” Perkins continued: “... in my opinion there would have been more stability in an108
indexing procedure such as has been proposed and defeated here today.”
Thereafter, Perkins yielded to Jim Guy Tucker (D-AR), who had originally suggested
the concept of a Commission. “The question of indexing, regardless of the vote we
104 Congressional Record, September 14, 1977, p. 29181.
105 Congressional Record, September 14, 1977, pp. 29183-29184.
106 Congressional Record, September 15, 1977, pp. 29431-29432.
107 Congressional Record, September 15, 1977, p. 29436.
108 Congressional Record, September 15, 1977, p. 29437.
just took, is not dead. We will have to look at this issue over and over as long as
inflation exists.” The Commission proposal was adopted: 301 ayes to 118 nays.109
While the Commission proposal was debated, Phillip Burton had prepared a
new initiative, one that largely paralleled the reported bill. Erlenborn objected that
the Burton proposal was not german,e but was overruled. On a vote of the House,
the Burton proposal was defeated (189 ayes, 227 nays) — and, so was indexation.110
Debated in the Senate. On October 6, 1977, Senator Williams called up
the Senate version of the minimum wage amendments (S. 1871). Floor debate
continued through October 7, 1977.
The Committee on Human Resources had produced a bill with an indexation
formula; but, it was promptly jettisoned by the sponsors (Williams and Javits) once111
it came to the floor. The indexation formula was said to have been a “reasonable
and important step.” However, Williams stated, “in light of the concerns which have
been expressed, I am proposing ... to forego the establishment of indexing for the
minimum wage, at least for the next few years.”112
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) commended the sponsors “for withdrawing the
indexing provision of the original bill. I think,” he stated, “it is a very wise and
judicious decision ....”113 John Tower (R-TX) was more critical. What has been done
through the Javits-Williams concession, he suggested, “is to achieve the result
without the formula.... It is back-door indexing.”114 (Italics added.)
109 Congressional Record, September 15, 1977, pp. 29437 and 29439.
110 Congressional Record, September 15, 1977, pp. 29440-29441. It may have been
possible, since indexation had the approval of the White House and the Committee on
Education and Labor, that its rejection on the House floor had caught proponents by
111 Congressional Record, October 6, 1977, pp. 32696-32697.
112 Congressional Record, October 6, 1977, p. 32698.
113 Congressional Record, October 6, 1977, p. 32705.
114 Congressional Record, October 6, 1977, p. 32721. See also comments of Senator Charles
Percy (R-IL) on indexing, Congressional Record, October 6, 1977, pp. 32722-32723.
The Minimum Wage Study Commission (1978-1981)
The Fair Labor Standards Act amendments of 1977 provided for establishment
of a Minimum Wage Study Commission (MWSC). Among the mandates given to
the Commission was to explore “the economic consequences (if any)” of indexation.
The MWSC would have 36 months in which to prepare and to transmit a report to
the President and to the Congress with legislative recommendations.115
The Commission reviewed the various aspects of the minimum wage, produced
a seven volume report, and ceased to exist in 1981. The cost of the Commission was
reported to have been $17 million.116 Former Congressman James O’Hara (D-MI)
was named as Chairman, presiding over a blue ribbon panel of representatives from
industry, labor, and the public, with an in-house staff of seven economists.117
Observations of the Commission
“The key issue to be resolved in indexation,” the Report of the Commission
stated, “is the purpose of the minimum wage.”118 Exploration focused upon the post-
World War II years and, primarily, upon the 1950s through the 1970s.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Report explained, “legislated minimum wage
increases caused marked improvements in purchasing power.” That was not the case
during the 1970s. Many “... minimum wage earners began working in the 1970s and
experienced only the decline in the minimum’s purchasing power.” More critically,
“... low-income workers in general and minimum wage workers in particular save
very little, and cannot provide for the future erosion of the purchasing power of their
earnings.” Finally, those earlier minimum wage increases “... were not designed as
a buffer for the unexpectedly high inflation of the 1970s and 1980s since Congress
did not foresee the oil crisis and other economic phenomena that boosted the
underlying inflation rate into double-digit figures....”119
115 P.L. 95-151, Section 2(e).
116 See Mary Eccles and Richard B. Freeman, What! Another Minimum Wage Study?
Working Paper No. 878, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc., 12 pp.
117 In addition to O’Hara, other members of the Commission included William Byrum
(representing Agriculture), Jay Foreman (Labor), S. Warne Robinson (Commerce), Clara
Schloss (Labor), Michael Wachter (Commerce), Phyllis Ann Wallace (HEW), and Sandra
Willett (Agriculture). Aside from the seven staff economists (with other assistants), the
Commission arranged for the services of some 53 outside specialists on aspects of the
minimum wage (mostly, economists) and some 38 outside discussants.
118 Report of the Minimum Wage Study Commission, Vol. 1, May 1981, published by the
Commission, p. 71. (Cited hereafter as MWSC by volume and page number.)
119 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 71.
The Report explained the pros and cons of indexation and noted the possible
methods for its implementation.120 It seemed to conclude that there may be no really
ideal base/formula for indexation. The effect of the various methods explored upon
employment was assessed to be small “although it varies slightly with the method
used.” It was found that corporate profits would increase slightly under each of the
plans studied, lending support to the theory “that firms find it easier to adjust to
gradual and expected advances in labor costs than to the more abrupt legislated
increases that have at times exacerbated inflation.”121 But, had indexation attached
to hourly earnings growth been attempted, the Report noted, “... the long-run impact
on consumer price inflation, corporate profits, and real gross national product would
have been small, though beneficial.”122 In summary, the Commission concluded:
First, the present system has not maintained the purchasing power of the
minimum wage. Second, indexation is not necessarily inflationary if it is based
on cost-of-living or other increases that have already taken place, as measured
for example by average hourly earnings, the consumer price index without the
mortgage interest payments or the implicit deflator. Third, indexation would
have a small beneficial effect on the economy in the long run.
In the short run, the Commission concluded, “... indexation could have either a small
beneficial or small harmful effect depending on underlying economic conditions.”123
Nonetheless, the Commission recommended that “...the minimum wage be
indexed on the basis of average hourly earnings in the private economy and adjusted
each year on the basis of the previous year’s overall rate of change in this index.”
Further, it concluded “... that regular and predictable increases in the minimum wage
would be non-inflationary and would be easier for business to adjust to than the124
irregular increases of the present system.”
Voices of Dissent: The Minority Report
Following congressional practice, the report was divided into a majority finding
with, in some cases, an expression of minority views. For the most part (with one
exception), such minority/dissenting views were short and narrowly focused.
The Robinson Dissent. S. Warne Robinson, chairman of the board, G. C.
Murphy Company, had been appointed to the Commission to represent industry.
“The minimum wage,” he began, “has always represented a trade-off among
higher wages for some workers, fewer job opportunities for others, and higher prices
120 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 73.
121 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 79.
122 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 79.
123 MWSC, vol. 1, pp. 83-84. Concerning the technical aspects of these issues, see CRS
Report RL30927, The Federal Minimum Wage: The Issue of Indexation, by Gerald Mayer.
124 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 84.
for everyone.”125 Robinson cited findings produced by “objective economists.” These
findings, he stated, “have shaken the very foundations” of the FLSA. Robinson
stated that the majority “has refused to base its conclusions on the inescapable
economic facts uncovered in our studies” but has, instead, provided “bold and
unsupportable assertions” in support of the minimum wage.126
Robinson’s comments, dealing with a variety of minimum wage-related issues,
focused as well upon the issue of indexation. One of the “most far-reaching and least
supportable recommendations” of the Commission, Robinson charged, “calls for
automatic annual increases in the minimum wage....” Indexing is “by its nature
inflationary.” It “starts with the premise that inflation is a fixed and permanent part
of the economy” and implies “a refusal to deal with the underlying causes of
inflation.” He continued: “Now is absolutely the worst conceivable time to be
building inflationary forces deeper into the heart of our economy. Yet that’s
essentially what the majority recommendation for indexing the minimum wage
would unavoidably do.”127
Robinson reasoned that “there is no index that adequately distinguishes
inflation-caused price increases from those caused by supply shocks.” He stated that
there were “other major problems with indexing” — i.e., that it “never applies
equally to everyone.” Thus, the result “is that anything short of a universal index will
always end up redistributing income in some unintended way.” He continued:
This will mean those with the lowest job skills will face even worse employment
prospects than at present; small business will be hurt harder, and labor-intensive
industries like the retail and service trades will be forced to pass on their
increased costs to consumers.
Robinson contended: “Everyone eventually winds up worse off due to stepped up
inflation including those who thought they were being protected by an index.”128
Finally, Robinson suggested that “...Federal attempts to set wages in defiance
of marketplace realities inevitably create inefficiency in the labor market and, in
particular, deny employment to specific segments of the labor market suffering129
above-average rates of unemployment historically.”
Other Voices of Dissent. Michael Wachter, then professor of economics,
University of Pennsylvania, was also a dissenter. The Commission, he stated, “was
firmly in favor of indexing and the only real question it debated was what index
should be used.”
125 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 182.
126 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 182.
127 MWSC, vol. 1, pp. 202-203.
128 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 204.
129 MWSC, vol. 1, pp. 205-206.
Wachter stated that the Commission “decided to index on a general wage rate
rather than a price index,” but that the “appropriate wage rate to be used as an index
... was not specified.” He explained: “The lack of a decision on the appropriate
index may seem unimportant, but it is the heart of the problem. There is no perfect
index,” he stated, “as all available indexes have serious weaknesses.” He added:
Indexing minimum wages means surrendering control not only of the
minimum wage level or floor but also of the cost of the minimum wage policy
to employers and the number of workers who may be displaced. This is not a
decision to be surrendered casually to an index number with unknown properties.
Wachter was quick to note that “once the choice of an index is made, no matter how130
poor the choice turns out to be, it is very difficult to change that index.”
Phyllis Ann Wallace, professor of economics, Sloane School of Business at
MIT, pleaded for more time in which “to examine the practical issues of indexing the
minimum wage.” Like other dissenters from the Commission’s report, Wallace
observed: “Most of the suggested indexes as presently constructed have major flaws.”
In agreement with Wachter, Wallace concluded: “I, therefore ... would not support,
at this time indexation of the minimum wage.”131
PART IV. THE REAGAN PRESIDENCY
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and Minimum Wage
In 1977, when the Minimum Wage Study Commission was created, there was
every reason to suspect that its report would be read avidly and that at least some of
its recommendations might be adopted. That would not be the case.
The Reagan Policy
“The minimum wage has caused more misery and unemployment than anything
since the Great Depression,” Ronald Reagan was quoted as having said early in the
campaign of 1980. How serious he may have been may not be entirely clear, but the
Wall Street Journal reported that Reagan, if elected, would “try to repeal the
minimum wage.”132 In November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President.
“Ronald Reagan wants to give teen-agers a better chance in the job market by
lowering their minimum wage,” stated a New York Times editorial.133 A headline in
130 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 235.
131 MWSC, vol. 1, p. 240.
132 Wall Street Journal, January 30, 1980, p. 4.
133 Editorial, “Tinkering With the Minimum Wage,” New York Times, December 2, 1980,
the Christian Science Monitor suggested: “Minimum Wage Cut for Youth Seen as
Early Reagan-Labor Confrontation.”134
As the 1981 Congress opened, Representative Erlenborn reportedly summed up
the situation. The Daily Labor Report noted:
The scheduling of additional annual increases in the nation’s minimum wage
may be ‘too high a price to pay’ for congressional passage of a lower, ‘youth
opportunity’ wage, Representative John Erlenborn (R-Ill) tells the Industrial135
Relations Association of Chicago....
Some in Congress favored a youth sub-minimum wage proposal; others, a higher
general minimum wage — but without the youth sub-minimum. Almost immediately,
there commenced a series of hearings on youth employment and the sub-minimum136
wage which would tend to occupy Congress throughout the Reagan years.
Few serious initiatives dealing with the minimum wage were considered during
the Reagan years. For minimum wage workers, there was no increase in wages
during the period. Nor was a youth sub-minimum enacted. The trade-off suggested
by Representative Erlenborn seemed to be holding.137
The Minimum Wage Study Commission and Its Impact
Even as the MWSC was being organized, the American Enterprise Institute
(AEI) announced a three-year research program “to evaluate the effects of the
minimum wage.” Simon Rottenberg, University of Massachusetts, was chosen as
director. “The Congress enacts minimum wage laws,” he reportedly said, “because
a majority of its members apparently believe that this is an effective strategy for
improving the condition of low income workers. Many economists have concluded,138
however, that such laws are not efficient instruments for ameliorating poverty.”
In late 1979, AEI hosted a conference in Washington, D.C., dealing with the
minimum wage and published the papers in a single volume in 1981 — almost at the139
same time as the report of the MWSC was released. There followed from AEI a
134 Ed Townsend, labor correspondent reporting in the Christian Science Monitor, December
135 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, January 14, 1981, p. A2.
136 With the 1980 election, Republicans gained control in the Senate. Senator Hatch chaired
the Committee on Labor and Human Resources; Senator Don Nickles (R-OK), the
Subcommittee on Labor. See, for example: U.S. Congress, Senate, Youth Opportunity Wage
Act of 1981, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Labor of the Committee on Labor andthst
Human Resources, 97 Cong., 1 Sess., March 24 and 25, 1981, 515 pp.
137 The Reagan Administration also called for reduction of child labor constraints and an
increase of options for industrial homework. Hearings during the period were numerous.
138 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, November 8, 1978, p. A2.
139 Simon Rottenberg, ed., The Economics of Legal Minimum Wages (Washington: American
series of monographs dealing with aspects of the minimum wage. Although none of
this work concerned indexation, specifically, the generally conservative AEI
publications tended to counter the more liberal MWSC report.
When the MWSC Report was published in the spring of 198l, it seems generally
to have been ignored. Minimum wage was not then before the Congress. By the end
of the decade when Congress was again ready to act on minimum wages, the MWSC
report seemed somewhat out-of-date and appears to have been utilized by each side
to support their particular perspectives.
PART V. LEGISLATIVE INITIATIVES:
THE LATE 1980s
Minimum Wage and Indexation: 1987-1988
In early 1987, several bills were introduced that dealt with the minimum wage.
Two bills (H.R. 1834 and S. 837) proposed step increases, followed by indexation.
In this case, the mechanism was to create a rate “equal to 50 percent of the average
private, nonsupervisory, nonagricultural hourly wage” rounded upward to 5 cents.140
Hearings in the House
On March 26, 1987, Representative Augustus Hawkins (D-CA), with others,
introduced H.R. 1834, a bill to raise the minimum wage to $4.65 and to index it. On
April 9, 1987, Representative Austin J. Murphy (D-PA), chair of the Subcommittee
on Labor Standards, convoked a hearing on the measure.
The first speaker was Mario Biaggi (D-NY) who lamented the long interval
without an increase in the minimum wage, endorsed indexation, and urged Congress
to move the bill forward.141 Gerald Kleczka (D-WI) took a somewhat different stand
(referring to H.R. 659, his own minimum wage bill). “No indexing, no other frills....”
The Kleczka bill had two 50-cent increases — the latter to take effect on January
1989. Kleczka stated: “...we have an administration which is not very friendly to the
proposal to begin with, and the more complicated we get, the more things we add
onto the legislation, I think increases the chance of a veto....” Murphy questioned:
Mr. MURPHY. I take it you are not, then, opposed to the Biaggi approach
of a 3- to 4-year mandatory increase plus indexing, but you think —
Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1981), 534 pp.
140 Congressional Record, March 25, 1987, p. 6877; and U.S. Congress, House, Hearings on
H.R. 1834, The Minimum Wage Restoration Act of 1987, Volume 1, Hearings before theth
Subcommittee on Labor Standards of the Committee on Education and Labor, 100 Cong.,st
141 House Hearings, vol. 1, 1987, p. 8-13.
Mr. KLECZKA. The chances of getting that signed into law, I think are
Mr. MURPHY. Your objections are practical, then, rather than
Mr. KLECZKA. Right. Let’s get the bill signed.
Representative Tommy Robinson (D-AR) concurred. “If we put indexing in the
minimum wage, I think it will be veto bait and it will be vetoed.”143
As the hearings progressed, there were the usual witnesses for and against an
increase in the minimum wage — and, from industry, very strong opinions with
respect to indexation.144 More supportive of the concept was the testimony of Mary
Dublin Keyserling, speaking on behalf of the National Consumers League. She
thought it “encouraging ... to hear that the bill is to index the minimum wage.”145
In October 1987, Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president, appeared before the
Subcommittee. Like Mrs. Keyserling, Kirkland supported indexation.
The indexing proposed in the House bill, Mr. Chairman, is clearly necessary to
prevent the deterioration of the minimum wage experienced over the last decade.
If indexing had been in place, a gradual adjustment in the minimum wage would
have taken place year by year. As other wage levels in general rose, minimum
wages would have risen with them. Indexing brings certainty and stability to the
process of adjusting the minimum wage.
Workers who experience poverty, Kirkland continued, “must depend on other forms
of income such as public assistance, and to the extent that they do, the U.S. taxpayers146
are subsidizing low-wage employers.”
Hearings in the Senate
On March 25, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) introduced S. 837, the
Minimum Wage Restoration Act of l987. It was roughly the equivalent of the
Hawkins bill, calling for indexing at the rate of 50 percent of average hourly earnings147
in manufacturing (AHE).
142 House Hearings, 1987, vol. 1, p. 20.
143 House Hearings, 1987, vol. 1, p. 20.
144 The testimony, House Hearings, 1987, extends through two volumes of testimony. See
especially, from volume 1: pp. 45, 87-88, 133, and 138. From volume 11, see pp. 103-104,
145 House Hearings, 1987, vol. 11, p. 45.
146 House Hearings, 1987, vol. 11, pp. 160-161. Kirkland, p. 166, noted that the AFL-CIO
“was disappointed when Congress failed to index the minimum wage in 1977.” See also
volume 11, pp. 209 and 360.
147 Congressional Record, March 25, 1997, pp. 6876-6877.
As chairman of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Senator
Kennedy commenced a series of hearings on the bill beginning on June 10, 1987.
“Since the first minimum wage was signed into law 49 years ago, Congress has
adjusted it six times. Each time,” Kennedy stated, “we have heard dire prophecies
of unemployment, inflation, and business failures. And six times these prophecies
have been false, and America has prospered.”148
The Senate hearings paralleled those of the House and had many of the same
witnesses. But testimony dealing with indexation may have been more subdued.
Senator Dan Quayle (R-IN) remarked in passing: “My own viewpoint as concerns the
bill before us is that indexing should be discarded.”149 Claiborne Pell (D-RI)
expressed similar thoughts. “I must say I share the reservation expressed here about
the indexing. That must be examined very carefully, indeed, and I am concerned
about it.”150 Secretary of Labor William Brock, unlike Secretary Marshall in 1977,
largely ignored the issue.151 Even James O’Hara, a former Member of Congress and
former chair of the MWSC, presented only a brief statement of support — though he
was more expansive during questioning.152
Industry, as with prior hearings, seemed to have taken a hard-line in opposition
to indexation. Labor, for the most part, was more supportive.153
Following the pattern of 1977, a quartet of economists appeared to lay out the
pros and cons of an increase in the minimum wage — with a certain amount of
disagreement. Gerald Adams, University of Pennsylvania, and David Swinton,
associated with the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy (Clark College),
took basically a pro-minimum wage position. John Glennie, with Robert Nathan
Associates, and Finis Welch, of UCLA, seemed more critical of the concept.154
148 U.S. Congress, Senate, Hearings on S. 837, The Minimum Wage Restoration Act of
149 Senate Hearings, 1987, p. 10.
150 Senate Hearings, 1987, p. 462.
151 Senate Hearings, 1987, pp. 12-57.
152 Senate Hearings, 1987, pp. 77-78. See ibid, p. 93, where O’Hara affirms “... by making
minimum wage increases more predictable and in smaller increments, it would probably
have an advantageous effect in terms of the reaction of employers, who would know ahead
of time the fact that the increases would most often be quite small on an annual basis.”
153 See, for example, Senate Hearings, pp. 140-141, 169-170, 179-180. Conversely, see
testimony of Lane Kirkland, pp. 302-304.
154 Senate Hearings, 1987, pp. 183-259.
Action by the Congress (1988)
By 1988, it had been nearly eleven years since Congress had acted to increase
the minimum wage: seven years since the last step increase had taken effect.155
During that time, workers employed at the minimum wage had fallen behind as
inflationary pressures escalated.
House Action on H.R. 1834. In late February 1988, as the House
Subcommittee on Labor Standards moved toward a mark-up on H.R. 1834, issues156
Within the Subcommittee (and, later, within the full Committee), there were
apparent disagreements. “It seems clear that indexation has to come out of the bill
at some point,” Representative Timothy Penny (D-MN) was quoted as saying. “The
question is when.” Hawkins took a different approach. “My position is to protect157
indexing....” The dispute rested between indexation and congressional oversight.
On March 3, the Subcommittee on Labor Standards met. Several Members, it
was reported, “expressing reservations about the size of the increase and the indexing158
provided in the bill....” For three hours, the Subcommittee discussed the wage
measure and, on a vote of 6 ayes to 3 nays (along party lines), the bill was ordered to
be reported to the full committee. In the process, the indexation provision was
dropped. Reportedly, Penny had “offered the amendment to strike the indexing
provision.” Hawkins suggested that it was still possible to restore the indexation
formula in full committee; but that the chances were no better than “50-50.”159 On
March 10, the Committee on Education and Labor conducted a full-Committee mark-
up and adopted a bill with a fourth sequential increase in the minimum wage to160
$5.05. Jay Power, lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, was asked if the final step increase
155 Speaking generally, there are at least two categories of minimum wage workers. Some
work only temporarily, moving on to other occupations; others remain at the minimum wage
through most of their working lives: for example, hotel maids, waitresses, short-order cooks.
156 In late February 1988, the House Small Business Committee, chaired by Representative
John LaFalce (D-N.Y.), issued a report, among other things, critical of indexation. See
Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, March 1, 1988, pp. A3-A4.
157 Patrick L. Knudsen, “Bill to Boost Minimum Wage Encounters Resistance, Delays,”
Congressional Quarterly, Weekly Report, February 27, 1988, p. 506. It was alleged that
indexation would, by doing away with debate over the minimum wage, would discourage
general oversight of the FLSA.
158 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, March 3, 1988, pp. A6-A7.
159 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, March 4, 1988, pp. 14-15; and Patrick
L. Knudsen, “House Panel Agrees to Minimum-Wage Hike,” Congressional Quarterly,
Weekly Report, March 5, 1988, p. 578.
160 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, March 17, 1988, pp. A10-A12. See also
Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, March 11, 1988, pp. A11-A12.
made losing the vote on indexation somewhat easier to swallow. “It does,” he was
quoted as having said. “But it would be our hope to restore indexing on the floor.”161
Delays of one sort or another followed and, ultimately, the House bill (H.R.
Senate Action on S. 837. The Senate, as in 1977, was aware of the action
by the House Subcommittee on Labor Standards on the indexation provision and of
divisions within the House on the general question of raising the minimum wage.
In Committee in the Senate, with Kennedy as chair, mark-up began on S. 837
on June 22, 1988. Under the new bill (a substitute), the final rate was lowered to163
$4.55 per hour. As the Senators met, the bill “still includes indexing.” However,
as the bill moved through mark-up, the indexation provision was dropped.164
In early September, presidential candidate George H. W. Bush indicated that he
would support “a slight increase” in the minimum wage. There was some indication
that President Reagan might “consider a reasonable increase” if a training wage were
included. This new compromise seemed to please no one. Critics of the minimum
wage were angered. “‘Seven years of effort to educate the public’ about the dangers
of raising the minimum wage ‘have been undermined by the Bush proposal,’”
Senator Hatch was reported to have said. Labor would not support the bill with a
training wage included. In late September, two attempts at cloture failed and, on
September 26, the minimum wage bill was pulled from the floor.165
161 Patrick L. Knudsen, “House Labor Adds 4th Year To Minimum-Wage Increase,”
Congressional Quarterly, Weekly Report, March 12, 1988, p. 679. When the report was
released , it barely mentioned the clash over indexation. However, two additional views —
those of Representatives Penny and Hawkins — did discuss the issue. See U.S. Cong.,thnd
House. 100 Cong., 2 Sess., March 31, 1988, Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1988,
Report 100-560 to accompany H.R. 1834, pp. 11, 40-41, and 43.
162 See Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, May 6, 1988, pp. A11-A12. It was
reported that “many Democrats were undecided” and Members “have been bombarded with
statistics and claims by business groups that an increase would hurt small business and
reduce employment....” Conversely, “unions and groups representing low-income workers”
held that an increase “would raise the standard of living ... and help move individuals off the
163 Macon Morehouse, “Senate Labor Begins Minimum-Wage Markup,” Congressional
Quarterly Weekly Report, June 25, 1988, p. 1722.
164 It appears that dropping the indexation provision was part of the compromise. See U.S.
Cong., Senate, 100th Cong., 2nd Sess., July 26, 1988, Fair Labor Standards Amendments of
165 CQ ALMANAC 1988 (Washington: Congressional Quarterly Inc.,1989), pp. 260-261.
George Bush and the FLSA Amendments of 1989
Early in the 101st Congress, new minimum wage legislation was quickly
introduced. With the change of Administrations in 1989, there was also a change of
focus on the minimum wage — though the new President was very specific as to
what he would (and would not) accept. Again, indexation became an issue.
House Action on H.R. 2
On January 3, 1989, Hawkins introduced H.R. 2, a bill “to restore the minimum
wage to a fair and equitable rate.” The bill, referred to the Committee on Education
and Labor with Hawkins as chair, called for an increase in the minimum wage, in
steps, to $4.65 an hour after December 31, 1991, together with other wage/hour
changes and, finally, a “Minimum Wage Review Board.” 166
The Review Board Proposal. On the strength of the several hearingsth
conducted during the 100 Congress, H.R. 2 was reported from the Subcommittee
to the full Committee, but without, it appears, reference to the Review Board.167 On
March 14, 1989, a full Committee hearing was held with the new Secretary of Labor,
Elizabeth Dole, who explained what it was that the President wanted in a new
minimum wage bill. There was considerable discussion about the potential impact
of a minimum wage increase — the potential for job loss, the proposal for a sub-168
minimum wage for youth — but no reference was made to the Board.
As reported from the Committee on Education and Labor, March 20, 1989, the
Board became somewhat more critical — though still, apparently, not of major
importance. It would have five members and would be “... required to conduct
continuous analyses of economic and other relevant data, and to submit periodic
recommendations to the Congress on the adjustments necessary to preserve the
purchasing power of the minimum wage.” The Board would provide a “permanent
group of experts” to advise Congress “on the advisability of making periodic
adjustments in the minimum wage.”169
The authors stated two purposes for the Board. First, its “foremost” and most
compelling need was “to prevent the minimum wage issue from being neglected for
an inordinate length of time.” Second, there was perceived to be a need for an
166 Congressional Record, January 3, 1989, p. 103.
167 U.S. Congress, House, Hearings on H.R. 2, 101st Cong., 1st Sess., March 9, 1989, 16 pp.
168 U.S. Congress, House, Hearing on the Minimum Wage, 101st Cong., 1st Sess., March 14,
169 U.S. Cong., House, Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1989, Report together with
Minority, Additional, and Individual Views, to accompany H.R. 2. H.Rept. 101-11, March
interpretive body that could deal, expertly, with the “controversy [that] has erupted
over the economic impact” of minimum wage proposals.170
Floor Action in the House. Though indexation had proven controversial,
the Board proposal seems to have sparked only a very limited response in the
House.171 During the initial debates, views were mixed and relatively low-key.
Charles Hayes (D-IL) made passing reference to the “... Board which will advise
Congress on the economic effects of wage adjustments.”172 Bruce Vento (D-MN)
was “pleased that this legislation provides for the establishment of an advisory board
to review relevant data and make periodic recommendations to Congress on173
adjustment of the minimum wage....” Donald Payne (D-NJ) pointed to the decline
in value of the minimum wage during the Reagan era and affirmed that the new
Board would attempt to redress that. With these recommendations, “Congress would
be armed with objective economic data to ensure bipartisan support for future174
minimum wage increases.”
There was also dissent. Ron Marlenee (R-MT) stated that the Board would
provide a “back door to pay increases each year.” This sounds, he said, “... like
another measure to delegate our authority to an unelected commission to propose
solutions to politically sensitive problems.” Marlenee affirmed: “... the American175
people do not want us to abrogate our authority to yet another commission?”
As debate moved into a second day, Representative William Goodling (R-PA)
was more outspoken. “A minimum wage review board is a backdoor indexing176
mechanism. That is all it is,” he charged. Later, Goodling reiterated (at various
times during the debate) that the issue was backdoor indexing. “Why do I say that,”
Goodling protested. “Very simply because now if they want to recommend, they
must recommend each year to the Congress. That means each year there is a good177
possibility that the same thing comes up over and over again.”
Hawkins advised his colleague, Mr. Goodling: “This review board is purely
advisory. If they recommend an increase, that increase would be submitted to this
body and to the other body as well, as a recommendation. It would not be
automatic.”178 Goodling was, seemingly, not convinced.
170 House Report, 1989, H.Rept. 101-11, pp. 12-13.
171 Indexation was not a part of the Senate Bill (S. 4).
172 Congressional Record, March 22, 1989, p. 5145.
173 Congressional Record, March 22, 1989, p. 5151.
174 Congressional Record, March 22, 1989, p. 5161.
175 Congressional Record, March 22, 1989, p. 5159.
176 Congressional Record, March 23, 1989, p. 5219.
177 Congressional Record, March 23, 1989, pp. 5239 and 5245. See, also, Congressional
Record, pp. 5234, 5236, and 5238.
178 Congressional Record, March 23, 1989, p. 5240.
On March 23, 1989, the House adopted a Murphy substitute (now endorsed by
Hawkins and others), containing the Minimum Wage Review Board. The vote was
A Compromise Within Congress
In the Senate, a new bill was substituted for H.R. 2 and was also titled H.R. 2.180
The Senate-passed bill omitted any reference to the Review Board; but a conference
committee, following much of the House-passed version, sustained the Board, and
it became a part of the final bill.
As reported from cConference, the Board would have been a congressional
entity. The five members of the Board would have been congressional appointees.
“The managers view the Minimum Wage Review Board,” the conference report
stated, “as a vital new tool in helping the Congress to discharge its legislative and
oversight responsibilities over” the FLSA.181 Further, the conference report opined
that the Board must have “appropriate information” upon which to base its
recommendations and called upon the Secretary of Labor to “increase and improve”
the Department’s survey capabilities.182
The Conference Report in the House. As the debate moved forward,
there was, in the background, a threatened veto from President Bush. On May 11,
1989, Representative Hawkins called up the conference report on H.R. 2. Hawkins
termed the bill “a reasonable, yet meaningful adjustment” of the minimum wage.
“While this measure is less than what we had originally hoped for, it is an essential183
step toward ensuring a fair and livable wage for the lowest paid workers.”
Conversely, Representative Goodling argued: “They know [proponents of an increase
in the minimum wage] it will be vetoed, I know it will be vetoed; they know it will
be sustained, I know it will be sustained.” He urged his colleagues “to vote against184
the conference report.”
Debate on the conference report proceeded in a routine manner. The matter of
indexation — albeit, backdoor indexation, in the words of Representative Goodling
— was largely ignored as the House moved forward with the conference report.
Ultimately, it was adopted: 247 ayes to 172 noes.185
179 Congressional Record, March 23, 1989, pp. 5256-5257.
180 Congressional Record, April 12, 1989, pp. 6169-6170. See, also, Bureau of National
Affairs, Daily Labor Report, May 3, 1989, p. A11.
181 Conference Report, H.Rept. 101-47, reprinted in Congressional Record, May 8, 1989,
182 Congressional Record, May 8, 1989, p. 8440.
183 Congressional Record, May 11, 1989, p. 8890.
184 Congressional Record, May 11, 1989, p. 8891.
185 Congressional Record, May 11, 1989, p. 8900.
The Conference Report in the Senate. On May 17, 1989, the conference
report was called up in the Senate. Senator Kennedy reviewed the reasons for
supporting a minimum wage increase, but did not appear to raise the principle of
indexation. However, Senator Hatch followed and he did refer to the issue of
“backdoor indexing.” The Board’s task “is predetermined,” he stated. “Each year,
they are to transmit to the Congress an official recommendation for a minimum wage
increase.” In an aside to Members, Hatch observed: “I wonder how many of my
colleagues are anxious to vote every year in perpetuity on a minimum wage bill.”186
The conference report was agreed to by a vote of 63 ayes to 37 nays.187
The President Vetoes H.R. 2
On June 13, 1989, the issue was resolved. Supporters of a minimum wage
increase were assembling for a news conference to urge the President to sign H.R. 2.
Meanwhile, during a flight to Lincoln, Nebraska, President Bush authorized the
White House to transmit his veto message to the Congress. While the assemblage188
waited, the veto message was read to the House.
The increase in the minimum wage, the President said, was of “an excessive
amount,” would “stifle the creation of new job opportunities,” and “would damage
the employment prospects of our young people and least advantaged citizens.” It
would “accelerate inflation” and would “not help those in poverty.” He affirmed:
“Economists universally agree that such an increase in the minimum wage will result
in the loss of job opportunities.” Most grievous, the training wage it included was
“ineffective.” It was too short: a “60-day limitation” for learning the nuances of
entry-level employment. “This can be accomplished only through a permanent
trainee differential.” He opined that the training wage “would do little to save jobs”
and affirmed that he “cannot support it.”189
The Board, the President stated, “threatens to compound the bill’s inflationary
effect,” adding that “it would be required to make annual recommendations to the
Congress for increasing the minimum wage in light of increases in wages and prices
since any previous minimum wage adjustment.” Finally: “This has been termed,
accurately, a ‘back-door’ indexing provision. It is unacceptable.”190
186 Congressional Record, May 17, 1989, p. 9498.
187 Congressional Record, May 17, 1989, p. 9515.
188 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, June 14, 1989, p. A13. See also: Bureau
of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, May 3, 1989, p. A11; and May 18, 1989, p. A11.
The Daily Labor Report notes, May 18, 1989, p. 12, comments by chief of staff John
Sununu: “The veto message has been written generically so it can be Xeroxed and sent back
... $4.25 is fine, $4.26 is veto-land, now and forever.”
189 See 101st Congress, 1st Sess., House Document 101-71, Veto of H.R. 2, Message from the
President of the United States Transmitting His Veto of H.R. 2, The Fair Labor Standards
Amendments of 1989, June 13, 1989, pp. 1-4. (Hereafter, cited as Veto Message, l989.)
190 Veto Message, 1989, pp. 1-4. President Bush, on page 2 of his veto message, stated:
Reaction in the House and an Attempt to Override
Action to override the veto fell to the House. The parties were split.
Representative Charles Hayes (D-IL) termed the President’s action “outrageous.”191
Conversely, Representative Cass Ballenger (R-NC) affirmed: “I support this veto.”
And, he added: “Those who really care about the working poor know that the issue
is not raising the minimum wage, but minimizing poverty.”192
On June 14, 1989, Representative Hawkins led off an appeal for an override of
the President’s veto. There follow a series of speeches, in some measure redundant.
Ultimately, the vote was cast: ayes, 247; nays; 178. To override a presidential veto,
a two-thirds majority was necessary. Since that was not achieved, the override
attempt failed.193 During debate on the override, the issue of indexation does not
appear to have been raised.
A New Minimum Wage Bill (H.R. 2710)
Following the veto of H.R. 2, there seemed to be some confusion in Congress.
Kennedy and Hawkins had initially scheduled a joint House-Senate hearing on the
minimum wage but, Labor Secretary Dole indicated that she would not be able to
testify because of “serious scheduling problems.”194 Meanwhile, new legislation was
introduced in the Senate (S. 1182) — and, on June 21, in the House. This later bill
(H.R. 2710) was to become the basis for accommodation with the White House.195
In the Senate, S. 1182, as introduced and reported, contained the Review Board
language — as did the House bill as introduced. On September 14, 1989, the House
Subcommittee on Labor Standards met and marked up a bill with a vote of 7 ayes to
4 nays. The Subcommittee met the President’s demand for a $4.25 limit on the
minimum wage.196 Despite this accommodation to the President, the Review Board197
likely remained in the act.
“Most minimum wage earners are young, they are single, they live in households with other
workers, and most importantly, they are not poor.”
191 Congressional Record, June 14, 1989, pp. 11748-11749.
192 Congressional Record, June 14, 1989, p. 11750.
193 Congressional Record, June 14, 1989, pp. 11775-11777. See also Bureau of National
Affairs, Daily Labor Report, June 15, 1989, p. A11.
194 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, June 19, 1989, p. A9.
195 Congressional Record, June 21, 1989, p. 12809.
196 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, September 15, 1989, pp. A9-A10.
197 News, Education and Labor Committee, Augustus F. Hawkins (D-CA), Chairman,
September 19, 1989, p. 1. See also U.S. Cong., House, Fair Labor Standards Amendments
of 1989, Report together with Minority and Additional Views, to accompany H.R. 2710,
H.Rept. 101-260, Part 1, September 26, 1989, pp. 16-17.
In late September, Representative Goodling indicated that further
accommodation had been reached with the White House — but negotiations
continued.198 Finally, a substitute bill was introduced and reported, giving the
President the lower minimum wage rate which he had sought, a training wage for
youth (with a termination date), an expanded small business exemption, and an
increase in the tip credit provisions. The Minimum Wage Review Board language
had been eliminated.199
On November 1, the measure was called up in the House and passed: 382 ayes
to 37 nays.200 On November 8, the Senate approved the measure: 89 yeas to 8
nays.201 The measure was signed into law by the President on November 17, 1989
PART VI. CONTEMPORARY POLICY:
The 1990s and Beyond
John Dent, who had evinced an early interest in minimum wage indexation,
retired from Congress in 1979. Augustus Hawkins, who had fought for indexation
in the 1980s, retired in 1990. In the Senate, Jacob Javits and Harrison Williams left
office in the early 1980s. One might have anticipated a shift away from the issue of
indexation of the minimum wage. The reverse, however, may have been true.
A Change of Policy
In 1938, the structure and administration for federal minimum wage legislation
were established. Thereafter, the practice had been to enact one or more step
increases in the rate of the minimum and to implement them at regularly scheduled
times. The Congress would evaluate the state of the economy and would raise the
minimum wage rate to a higher level.
198 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, September 20, 1989, pp. A11-A12.
199 Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report, November 1, 1989, p. 11, states:
“Murphy told the Rules Committee that House negotiators had agreed to eliminate the wage
commission, which had in turn replaced a provision in the original minimum wage proposal
(H.R. 2) that had called for indexing future raises in the minimum wage. ‘We agreed to
withdraw the commission so there’s no inference of indexing,’ Murphy said.”
200 Congressional Record, November 1, 1989, pp. 26804-26825. The Bureau of National
Affairs, Daily Labor Report, November 2, 1989, p. A13, states: “The compromise is a
significant victory for the Bush administration. Relatively minor changes were made to his
201 Congressional Record, November 8, 1989, pp. 27851-27878.
202 CQ Almanac: 1989, “Minimum-Wage Impasse Finally Ended,” Congressional Quarterly
Inc., Washington, 1990, pp. 333-340.
This approach was at times effective in maintaining the value of the minimum
wage (e.g., in the middle 1960s); but on other occasions, it was not. For example,
from 1981 through 1989 (the Reagan years), the minimum declined in real terms.
Again, from 1997 through the present, no change has been enacted in the federal
minimum wage rate. The general rate has remained at $5.15 since 1997. The highest
rate currently under consideration would raise it to $7.25 per hour — to be phased-in
two years and 60 days from the date of enactment. If the minimum wage had been
indexed to its late 1960s value, it would now be in excess of $9.05 per hour.203
Meanwhile, about 27 states have entered the minimum wage arena with wages
in excess of the federal, but with very different state standards. Several have indexed
their minimum wage rates: Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Florida, with six other
states now in the process of implementing indexation. It is possible that the issue of
indexation may arise during debates in the 110th Congress.
Recent Proposals for Minimum Wage Indexation
Since 1992, there have been a series of proposals calling for indexation of the
minimum wage. The proposals vary, as does their intent. None of the proposals has
yet, it appears, been a subject of hearings. None of these measures has been enacted.
But, then, no new minimum wage legislation has been enacted as stand-alone
legislation since 1989.204 This segment of the report inventories various indexation
proposals of the past 15 years.205
The 102nd Congress. On September 30, 1992, Representative George Miller
(D-CA) introduced H.R. 6067, referred to the Committee on Education and Labor,
Subcommittee on Labor Standards. The bill would have indexed the minimum wage206
“to the cost of living in the same manner as Social Security benefits are indexed.”
Miller described the extensive use of indexation in a variety of federal programs.
“The concept that the Federal minimum wage should be a living wage, enabling
workers to support their families, has become a myth,” he said. “At $4.25 per hour,
the minimum wage is inadequate to keep workers out of poverty.”207
203 Representative Phil English (R-PA), during the 109th Congress, had proposed legislation
(H.R. 5368) that would have raised the minimum to $7.50 to become effective on October
204 From 1938 through 1989, FLSA amendments were of a single stand-alone purpose. In
1996, the minimum wage came to the floor as an amendment to a tax program favored by
industry. Thus, though it represents only once such occasion, some observers view it as a
linkage of the minimum wage for workers with tax legislation for employers.
205 Since these measures were not the subject of hearings (and were not considered on the
floor), there is an absence of negative assessment in this section. However, negative
comments can be inferred from the earlier portions of the paper.
206 Congressional Record, September 30, 1992, p. 29242.
207 Congressional Record, September 30, 1992, p. 29242.
The 103rd Congress. On January 5, 1993, Representative Miller, with some
modification, reintroduced his proposal from the 102nd Congress (H.R. 281) which208
was, again, referred to the Subcommittee on Labor Standards.
On January 27, 1993, Representative Bernard Sanders (I-VT) introduced (H.R.
formula for indexing the minimum wage. It was referred to the Subcommittee on
Labor Standards. The pre-indexation rate would have been $5.50.
“[M]illions of Americans,” he stated, “find themselves working fulltime, but
still unable to maintain a decent standard of living.” Sanders took note of the
tendency toward a contingent workforce (“no health insurance, no vacation days, no
pensions — and of course, no job security”) and stated: “A record 26.6 million
Americans, 10.4 percent of our people, are now on food stamps — the highest
percentage since the program started in 1964.” Sanders added: “In effect, the
taxpayers are subsidizing the low wages being paid by corporations through food
stamps, Medicaid, and other programs for the working poor.” His bill would have
increased the minimum wage to $5.00 and indexed it to inflation.210
On March 11, 1993, Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), introduced S. 562, which
was referred to the Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
The Wellstone bill would have raised the minimum wage, in steps, to $6.75
beginning on September 1, 1996, and then would have indexed the rate to “50
percent of the monthly average hourly earnings for nonfarm, nonsupervisory private
workers” rounded to the nearest multiple of $0.05. The measure provided “that any
amount determined under this subparagraph shall not be less than the amount
applicable under this paragraph for the preceding year.” (Italics added.)
Wellstone explained that the bill “would gradually restore the value of the
Federal minimum wage” and, further: “It would also ensure that the minimum wage
no longer erodes as a result of inflation, congressional inaction, or some combination
of both, by permanently tying the minimum wage to a traditional index: one-half of
average hourly U.S. private sector wages.” The bill would “...break the cycle of211
minimum wage hikes enacted at irregular intervals by the Congress....”
208 Congressional Record, January 6, 1993, p. 329.
209 Congressional Record, January 27, 1993, p. 1364.
210 Congressional Record, April 29, 1993, p. 8613.
211 Congressional Record, March 11, 1993, pp. 4877-4878.
The 104th Congress. On January 4, 1995, Representative Sanders introduced
H.R. 363 calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $5.50 an hour by December
30, 1995. Thereafter, the minimum wage would be indexed under the Social Security
On January 11, 1995, Senator Kennedy (with Paul Wellstone) introduced S. 203.
The bill would have raised the minimum wage, in steps, to $5.75 an hour beginning
from September 1, 1997. The bill, which also proposed a Commission to study the
minimum wage, was referred to the Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
The “Commission on the Minimum Wage” would have been composed of 9
members: three each appointed by the Secretaries of Labor, of Commerce, and of
Health and Human Services. The duties of the “Commission” would have been to
study and make recommendations to Congress on:
A) means to restore the minimum wage to the level relative to the average
hourly wage that existed when the Congress adjusted the minimum wage during
the period 1950 through 1980; and,
(B) means to maintain such level with minimum disruption to the general
economy through periodic adjustments to the minimum wage rate.
The report was to be issued not later than September 1, 1997, after which (in 30 days)
the Commission would expire. Members were to serve “without compensation.”
On May 2, 1996, Senator Wellstone introduced S. 1722, an omnibus social
policy bill the first segment of which dealt with the minimum wage. The bill was
referred to the Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
The Wellstone bill would have increased the minimum wage, in steps, to $5.15
an hour after September 1, 1997, and would, thereafter, index it “to not less than ...
45 percent of the monthly average hourly earnings for nonfarm, nonsupervisory
private workers for the preceding 12 months....” The bill also stated that the amount
“shall not be less than the amount applicable under this paragraph for the preceding
year....” (Italics added.)
The 105th Congress. On July 28, 1997, Representative Sanders introduced
H.R. 2278, the “Liveable Wage Act of 1997.” The bill was referred to the
Committee on Education and the Workforce. Following in the wake of the 1996
FLSA amendments, the bill would have increased the minimum wage to $6.50 after
December 30, 1997. At the beginning of each calendar year after December 30,
1998, the Secretary would have adjusted the minimum wage in proportion to benefits
payable under the Social Security Act.212
On January 1, 1998, Senator Kennedy introduced S. 1573. The bill, which
would have raised the minimum wage, in steps, to $6.65 per hour, would also have
indexed the minimum wage, beginning from the $6.65 figure. It instructed the
Secretary to adjust the minimum wage on September 1, 2001 (and each year
212 Congressional Record, July 28, 1997, p. 16032.
thereafter), “to reflect increases in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban
Consumers during the most recent 12-month period for which data are available.”213
The bill was referred to the Committee on Labor and Human Resources.214
In the House, Representative David Bonior introduced H.R. 3100, the
“American Family Fair Minimum Wage Act of 1998” — with 107 co-sponsors. The
bill, paralleling Senator Kennedy’s bill in the Senate (S. 1573) was referred to the
Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.215
The 106th Congress. On February 8, 1999, Representative Sanders
introduced H.R. 627 to raise the minimum wage to $6.50 by December 30, 1999.
Afterwards, indexation, under the Social Security formula, was included. The216
measure was assigned to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.
On March 3, 1999, Representative Jack Quinn (R-NY) introduced H.R. 964.
The measure called for an increase of the minimum wage, in steps, to $6.15 per hour
by September 1, 2001. It also called for indexation of the minimum wage “in
proportion to increases in the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers” to
begin on September 1, 2002. The bill contained two collateral provisions: “an
increase shall not exceed 4 percent in any one calendar year” and “the minimum217
wage will never fall below the previous year’s level.” The bill was assigned to the
Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.
The 107th Congress. On August 2, 2001, Representative Sanders introduced
H.R. 2812.218 The bill would have raised the minimum wage, in steps, to $8.15 per
hour as of January 1, 2003. In addition, it called for indexation of the minimum wage
along a modified Social Security principle. The term “cost of living adjustment”
means the applicable increase percentage under the Social Security Act “effective for
benefits payable in January of the next calendar year.” The bill was assigned to the
Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.
The 108th Congress. On September 9, 2004, Representative Chris Bell (D-
TX), introduced H.R. 5043.219 The measure would have increased the minimum
wage, in steps, to $7.00 per hour and, then, would have indexed it in accordance with
213 No reference was made in the bill with respect to negative indexation: that the minimum
wage would decline were the Consumer Price Index to fall.
214 Congressional Record, January 27, 1998, p. S52.
215 Congressional Record, January 27, 1998, p. H21.
216 Congressional Record, February 8, 1999, p. 1995.
217 Congressional Record, March 3, 1999, p. 3497.
218 Congressional Record, August 2, 2001, p. 15780.
219 Congressional Record, September 9, 2004, p. H6996.
the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers to be altered annually. The bill
was assigned to the Committee on Education and the Workforce.220
The 109th Congress. On May 4, 2006, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY)
offered S. 2725 (“Standing with Minimum Wage Earners Act of 2006”), to increase
the minimum wage, in steps, to $7.25 per hour beginning 24 months and 60 days
after enactment. It provided automatic adjustment “... for the year involved by a
percentage equal to the percentage by which the annual rate of pay for Members of
Congress increases for such year ....” The measure was referred to the Committee on
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
When introducing S. 2725, Ms. Clinton pointed out that the “... Federal
minimum wage is currently $5.15 an hour, an amount that has not been increased
since 1997. Sadly,” she stated, “during that time, Congress has given itself eight
annual pay raises. We can no longer stand by and regularly give ourselves a pay
increase while denying a minimum wage increase to help the more than 7 million221
men and women working hard across this nation.”
On June 29, 2006, Representative Al Green (D-TX) introduced H.R. 5731, a bill
that proposed indexation of the minimum wage. It was referred to the Committee on
Education and the Workforce.
Under the proposal, the Secretary of Labor shall determine the minimum wage
rate applicable under subsection (a)(1) of the FLSA and “shall publish such wage rate
in the Federal Register not later than October 1 of each year.” The bill states:
The minimum wage rate determined by the Secretary ... shall be the minimum
hourly wage sufficient for a person working for such wage 40 hours per week,
52 weeks per year, to earn an annual income in an amount that is 12 percent
higher than the Federal poverty threshold for a two person household, with one
person a child under age 18, and living in the 48 contiguous States, as published
for each such year by the Census Bureau.
The bill states that if such determination “... results in a lower minimum wage than
that then in effect, the Secretary shall not adjust the minimum wage then in effect
pursuant to this subsection.”222 Neither bill was enacted.
The 110th Congress. In the 110th Congress, Representative Al Greenth223
introduced a new version of his bill of the 109 Congress: now, H.R. 4637. On
220 No negative indexation (or decline in times of adversity) appears in the bill.
221 Congressional Record, May 4, 2006, p. S4056.
222 Congressional Record, June 29, 2006, p. H4915. In Sec. 2, under a sense of Congress
provision, it is provided: “... the Federal minimum wage should, as a minimum, be adjusted
every 4 years so that a person working for such a wage may earn an annual income that is
not less than 112 percent of the Federal poverty threshold, as determined by the Census
Bureau; and....” See also Sec. 3(2)(b)(1).
223 H.R. 4637was introduced on December 13, 2007, and referred to the House Committee
December 18, 2007, Senator Clinton introduced S. 2514, a bill that largely followed
her bill of the prior Congress.
In a statement, Senator Clinton observed: “If we in Congress can give ourselves
a raise, surely we can raise the pay of working families struggling to make ends
meet.” Recalling the long period since the most recent minimum wage increase
(since 1997), she stated: “My bill would ensure that working families faced with a
rising cost of living each year are not forced to wait another ten years for an increase
in the minimum wage.” The Clinton proposal would raise the minimum wage, in
steps, to $9.50 an hour on July 1, 201l, and then index it beginning on July 1, 2012,
to increases in the salary of Members of Congress.224
In the 110th Congress, the general federal minimum wage was again a subject
of legislation, adoption of which occurred during the spring of 2007. The bill was
signed on May 25, 2007. However, the focus was narrow, and the issue of indexation
was not addressed in legislative format.
on Education and Labor. There does not appear to have been an introductory statement.
224 S. 2514 (the “Standing with Minimum Wage Earners Act of 2007”) was referred to the
Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Senator Clinton is quoted from her
press release of December 19, 2007. See:
Table 2. Proposals To Index the Federal Minimum Wage,
102ndH.R. 6067Miller — Social Security —
Co ngr e s s (George) Ac t
103rdH.R. 281Miller — Social Security —
Co ngr e s s (George) Ac t
— H.R. 692Sanders$5.50Social Security —
— S. 562Wellstone$6.7550% of Average —
104thH.R. 363Sanders$5.50Social Security —
Co ngr e s s Ac t
— S. 203Kennedy$5.75 — Commission
— S. 1722Wellstone$5.1545% of Average —
105thH.R. 2278Sanders$6.50Social Security —
Co ngr e s s Ac t
— S. 1573Kennedy$6.65Consumer Price —
Index, All Urban
Co nsume r s
— H.R. 3100Bonior$6.65Consumer Price —
Index, All Urban
Co nsume r s
106thH.R. 627Sanders$6.50Social Security —
Co ngr e s s Ac t
— H.R. 964Quinn$6.15Consumer Price —
Index, All Urban
Co nsume r s
107thH.R. 2812Sanders$8.15Social Security —
Co ngr e s s Ac t
108thH.R. 5043Bell$7.00Consumer Price —
CongressIndex, All Urban
Co nsume r s
109thS. 2725Clinton$7.25Ratio to Salary of —
Co ngr e s s
— H.R. 5731Green (Al) — Percentage, —
110thH.R. 4637Green (Al)$7.25Percentage, —
— S. 2514Clinton$9.50Ratio to Salary of —
Co ngr e s s
PART VII. FOR THE FUTURE?
Minimum wage workers, for the most part, accept low-wage work because no
other work is available. Whether they are very young, lack training, suffer
infirmities, or have other responsibilities (for example, care for family members or
academic scheduling), work at the minimum wage would likely not have been their
first choice if higher-paying jobs were available. Absent alternative and more
remunerative employment opportunities, some do use entry-level work as an interim
measure. Some also remain at such work through the better part of a lifetime —
presumably not by choice.225
For persons who have entered the workforce at a minimum wage level, wages
may be of some importance. Some employers already pay a rate above the minimum;
others pay only the wage that is required by law: that is, the minimum wage under the
Fair Labor Standards Act. Few minimum wage workers, it would appear, are union
members and work under a collectively negotiated agreement. In the case of non-
union employees, their wage may be determined by congressional action. Congress
over the years has acted sporadically in this area.
It is possible that the resultant gaps in mandating an increase have occurred by
design: a conviction that the minimum wage, per se, is bad public policy and that its
inflationary erosion would, over time, render its use as a wage floor less important.
It may also have been the result of indifference or the urgency of competing national
priorities. For proponents of a higher minimum wage for the working poor, such
gaps may have produced a renewed interest in indexation.
With indexation, regardless of the mechanism used, there would be “regular,
predictable, wage rate increases” for minimum wage workers. For the workers
themselves, at least that minimal amount would be automatically added to their
paycheck. For employers, such a rate increase (generally in response to inflationary
pressures) could reasonably be anticipated and prepared for.
Were indexation to be adopted, however, some things may be lost and some
parties may be adversely affected. By not indexing the minimum wage (and by
allowing its continuing decline in real terms), certain employers are freed from
having to pay higher wages.226 Further, with indexation, low-wage workers could
225 In 2005, of hourly-paid workers, according to unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, women made up about 65.6% of minimum wage earners (with only about 34.4%
males). In 2005, about 59.8% of workers at and below the minimum wage were employed
on a part-time basis. Of these, about 71% who work only part-time were women. It may
be difficult to analyze just why workers choose to engage in low-wage and/or part-time
work. Clearly, their perspectives are diverse. Motivational factors may deserve further
226 Jim Snyder, a regular columnist for Hotel Management Review & Innkeeping, August
1966, p. 10, at a time when that industry was brought under the FLSA, reported: “‘We’ve
expect progressively higher wages — and may feel less need of trade unions.
Although indexation might alleviate the need for oversight of the rate of worker
remuneration, it might also eliminate discussion of overtime pay, child labor, and
related subjects.227 Finally, for Members of Congress, a periodic review of the
minimum wage may have a certain resonance with voters: permitting some to claim
credit for an increased wage while others may want to show how firmly they opposed
such an increase.
Would indexation (whatever its merits) resolve the matter of minimum wage
increases? With a formula established (whether based on Social Security, a
percentage of average hourly earnings, or the CPI), might a new campaign arise to
take its place? For example, if indexation were based on a percentage of average
hourly earnings (40% or 50% or 53%), would proponents of a “living, family, saving
wage” now protest that the rate continues to provide a poverty level income and that
some adjustment may be necessary: to 60% or 70%?
A more practical side may emerge to the indexation question. First. There is
no perfect methodology for indexation, though that issue might be addressed through
hearings. Second. If an increase in the minimum wage could be made automatic
during good times, might a decrease also be made automatic during periods of high
unemployment or other economic upheavals? If the minimum wage goes up when
times are good, some might argue, then might it not come down when conditions are
more problematic? Third. How might indexation (whether an increase or a decrease)
be factored into other areas of policy, such as trade policy or immigration? Fourth.
Is there a nexus between productivity and a wage increase? If there is a merit system
in place, how might that be affected by an automatic increase in wage rates? Fifth.
Inflation may be yet another matter. Some view indexation as a method through
which lower wage workers can cope with pressures of the cost of living. But, others
view indexation, in its own right, as an engine of inflation that, once in place, would
be basically unstoppable.
Through the years, at least since the 1940s, indexation has been frequently
discussed but, perhaps, not actually explored in its varied aspects. Several of the
states now have indexation in place: several more will soon have such a system
installed. Such experimentation by the states may hold promise — or a threat — for
lost all right,’ philosophized one AH&MA [American Hotel and Motel Association]
spokesman. ‘But when you consider that the industry has saved a million dollars or so every
day it’s been exempt, I guess you could say that the effort was worthwhile.’”
227 As has been suggested through the years, indexation could remove one element of
contention (the level of the minimum wage) and replace it with another issue: the rate at
which indexation should be pegged.