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Congress won't index the minimum wage to inflation

WASHINGTON—Marc Morial doesn't want anyone to misunderstand. He's delighted that the Democrats who took over Congress are getting ready to raise the minimum wage.

But he's frustrated that he can't find even one member of Congress who's pushing for a long-term fix: indexing the wage to inflation so that it rises each year with the cost of living.

"I find it insulting," said Morial, the president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans.

"Our nation's working poor don't deserve to be at the mercy of the whims of the U.S. Congress," he said. "By indexing the wage for inflation, we'll assure that the lowest wage earners get cost-of-living increases built into their wages so they never have to beg politicians to protect their incomes during the economy's inevitable ups and downs."

It's not that the federal government is averse to hitching some spending to the cost of living.

The elderly get that automatic increase every year in their Social Security checks.

Most government contractors have escalation clauses built into their agreements. If the cost of fuel goes up, their checks go up.

Even members of Congress finally found a way around the politically dangerous business of voting themselves pay raises every year or so. They put their own raises on automatic pilot and get annual cost-of-living raises unless they vote to stop them.

"If Congress has indexed its own pay, it's an insult not to do it for minimum-wage workers," Morial said. "Every time they get a raise, the minimum wage should be raised also."

Had the minimum wage been indexed to inflation when it was last raised, in 1997, it would be $6.48 an hour now instead of $5.15.

"For a mere $1.33 an hour more over 10 years, our federal lawmakers could have prevented millions of workers already in precarious economic positions from losing ground," Morial said. "Our leaders are entitled to cost-of-living increases. Why should it be any different for our nation's working poor?"

There are plenty of reasons that Congress doesn't do that.

One, Morial said, is that Democrats probably figure it's easier to raise the wage than it is to index it.

Another, a cynic might add, is that those who make the minimum wage have less clout in Washington than the elderly, government contractors or members of Congress do.

Equally cynically, indexing the minimum wage would rob the Democrats of an issue they use to bludgeon Republicans and rouse their base.

The working poor are faring better in the states, however.

Four states already increase the wage automatically: Florida, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Another six voted last November to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio.

At least another 11 are considering indexing proposals: Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

"It's one more area where states have enacted measures ahead of the federal government," said Sujit Canagaretna, a senior fiscal analyst at the Council of State Governments.

And the states, apparently, are one place where advocates of a higher minimum wage have the courage to propose more than a one-time increase.

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Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail sthomma@mcclatchydc.com.)

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