Labor secretary skirts question about ideal minimum wage

The U.S. Capitol. (Credit: Toni Smith, USGS. Public domain

WASHINGTON — On International Workers’ Day, Maryland Democratic Rep. David Trone asked U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta a question on the minds of many workers: What do you think the federal minimum wage should be?

“Just give me a number, not a long diatribe,” Trone told Acosta at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing.

But he didn’t get what he wanted.

Acosta said the issue can’t be boiled down to a single number. “I know you want a number, but it’s not that simple, or it would already be adopted,” he said.

Trone, a successful businessman who represents Maryland’s 6th District, pressed further, asking: “Can we get a number … somewhere?”

But Acosta dodged again — responding instead that studies show that raising the federal minimum wage leads to job loss, a point with which Trone disagreed.

Earlier in the hearing, Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia’s 3rd District and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, called for a raise in the federal minimum wage.

After nearly a decade with no increase, the federal minimum wage — which now stands at $7.25 per hour — has lost more than 15 percent of its value, Scott said in his opening statement. As a result, he said, there is no place in America where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.

The Trump administration not only opposes raises for low-wage workers but has also undermined earnings for middle-class workers, in part by overturning an Obama-era rule on overtime pay, Scott said.

In January, Scott introduced the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 in 2024. More than 200 lawmakers have signed on to the bill, including Trone, six other Maryland lawmakers and six other Virginia lawmakers.

Noting that White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow called the federal minimum wage “a terrible idea” last year, Scott asked Acosta if the department shared that view. Acosta responded that the department “does not support a change to the federal minimum wage at this time.”

Acosta noted he isn’t opposed to higher wages — which he called “a good thing” — but said they are rising because of larger economic forces.

“Something is working, and it is working well,” he said. “Unemployment is low and wages are going up.”

But Trone didn’t give up: “Let’s see if we can get a raise,” he said. “Your leadership would really be helpful.”