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A Domestic Issue that Hits Home

Democrats mount a radio campaign highlighting their differences with the GOP on a question of pocketbook fairness.

July 26, 2006

Modified: July 26, 2006

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Summary

This week the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began running radio ads in six districts attacking Republican incumbents for accepting regular pay raises while opposing an increase in the federal minimum wage for low-income workers like nurses' aides and hotel workers. We find the Democratic ads accurate though a bit exaggerated. The national average pay for a nurse's aide is more than twice what some of the ads imply.

Analysis

The DCCC says it will spend about $400,000 on 60-second radio spots in 10 congressional districts, six of which are more or less cookie-cutter pieces focusing on the minimum wage. The ads take the form of a game show, with an announcer who kicks things off by saying “Let’s play ‘Who Deserves a Pay Raise?’” The targets: GOP Reps. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, Deborah Pryce of Ohio, John Hostettler of Indiana, Charles Taylor of North Carolina and Thelma Drake of Virginia, and GOP hopeful Mike Whalen, who's running for an open seat in Iowa.

Democrats aren't about to let voters -- especially voters in congressional swing districts that are key to their strategy for regaining control of the House -- forget that it has been nine years  since the minimum wage last went up, to $5.15, and their party's not to blame.

DCCC ad "Heather Wilson Minimum Wage"

Male Announcer:  Let's play, "Who Deserves A Pay Raise?"
(A crowd claps and cheers in the background) 
Male Announcer: Today's contestants: On my left, a nurse's assistant who works long, hard days and earns $5.15 an hour -- the minimum wage. It hasn't gone up one penny in nine years.
On my right, Congresswoman Heather Wilson. Whenever George Bush has
an idea, Wilson just pulls out her big Washington rubber stamp and votes with George Bush.
But, she's taken over $30,000 in pay raises over the past eight years. She also gets fancy dinners and free trips.
(A crowd boos in the background)
Female Announcer: It's not right. Heather Wilson just voted herself another $3,300 pay raise; but she said "no" to increasing the minimum wage.  She's been in Washington so long, she's forgotten her New Mexico values. Call Congresswoman Wilson at 202-225-3121. Let her know working people need a raise. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. Paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, dccc.org. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.

Nursing a Grudge

One version takes aim at Heather Wilson, the four-term New Mexico congresswoman, contrasting her with a nurse’s assistant who, according to the announcer, "works long, hard days and earns $5.15 an hour." (The same nurse's aide is featured in all the other ads but one).

That's a bit of a stretch. We'll grant that there are probably nursing assistants who earn the minimum wage. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the national average hourly rate paid to nurses’ aides, orderlies and attendants in May 2005 was $10.67 – far from a princely sum but still more than double what the ad tells us.

Raising Her Own Wage

 Wilson, the announcer tells us, has taken $30,000 in congressional pay raises in the last eight years and gets “fancy dinners and free trips.” A different voice tells us "Wilson just voted herself another $3,300 pay raise" while opposing an increase in the minimum wage. That's close to the mark. Since Wilson got to Congress, her salary has jumped  $28,500 (not quite $30,000).  And Wilson recently voted not to reject the cost-of-living increase that lawmakers will get come Jan. 1, a vote cloaked in layers of congressional jargon. Congressional pay raises are automatic unless lawmakers vote to block them. (Drake and Taylor did vote to reject the pending increase, but the ads attacking them don't claim otherwise). Wilson has voted against increasing the minimum wage.

Fancy dinners and free trips? Like other lawmakers, Wilson is allowed to accept privately funded travel if it is connected to "official business." She has  taken several such trips in the last five years, but is a piker compared with many of her globetrotting colleagues.

A Bush Echo Chamber?

The DCCC ad says Wilson regularly "pulls out her big Washington rubber stamp and votes with George Bush." And in fact, from 2001-2004 she voted the President's way at least 88 percent of the time each year, though in 2005 she dropped to 70 percent, according to Congressional Quarterly's vote survey. (Among the other ad targets, Hostettler came in at 72, Pryce at 88, Taylor at 84 and Drake at 89).

Open for Business

Another version of the ad is tailored to jab the Republican running for an open seat in Iowa. In this one, the minimum wage worker is a hotel clerk. “On my right,

DCCC ad "Mike Whalen Minimum Wage"

Male Announcer:  Let's play, "Who Deserves A Pay Raise?"
(A crowd claps and cheers in the background)
Announcer: Today's contestants: On my left, a hotel clerk who works long, hard days and earns $5.15 an hour -- the minimum wage. It hasn't gone up one penny in nine years. On my right, Mike Whalen, a wealthy hotel and restaurant owner who's made millions. But guess what? He's against raising the minimum wage for working people, like those who work in hotels and restaurants. He claims a raise won't have a positive impact on working families. 
(A crowd boos in the background.) 
Female Announcer: It's not right. Mike Whalen has made millions for 
himself; now he opposes raising the minimum wage for working folks. Call Mike Whalen at 1-866-648-6453. Tell him to stop being a rubber stamp for George Bush and stand up for Iowa values. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. Paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, dccc.org. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.

Mike Whalen, a wealthy hotel and restaurant owner who's made millions,” says the announcer, who then tells us that Whalen is “against raising the minimum wage for working people, like those who work in hotels and restaurants. He claims a raise won't have a positive impact on working families.” Whalen is indeed a millionaire in the hotel and restaurant business (he founded  the Heart of America Restaurants and Inns), and he's spoken against raising the minimum wage. As he said recently on an Iowa television program:

Whalen: No, I don't think the minimum wage really has the kind of positive impact that people claim it to be. I think right now in this country, you've seen the markets raise wages across the board. And, in fact, what we need to do is to set policies that allow people to create better jobs rather than worrying about how we can artificially mandate a wage.

We’re not sure how Whalen can “stop being a rubber stamp for George Bush,” as the DCCC's announcer urges, when he isn’t yet a member of Congress. It's true he has voiced support for many of Bush's policies.

This is one of those classic issues that splits members of Congress essentially along party lines, with Republicans usually siding with the anti-regulatory business lobby that is part of their base and Democrats hanging with their traditional constituency, which includes more voters on the disadvantaged end of the economic spectrum. Of course, the Republicans could take a lot of the air out of this issue by looking back a decade and voting to hike the minimum wage as they did just before the 1996 midterms. Some Republicans in tough re-election battles have been pressuring House leaders to schedule a vote to do just that. And earlier this month, 64 House Republicans, including Wilson and Pryce, voted  for a resolution urging lawmakers who were negotiating the final version of a job-training bill to include a minimum wage increase. But the resolution was non-binding.

– by Viveca Novak

Sources

U.S.  House, 109th Congress, 2nd Session, House Vote No. 261

U.S. House, 109th Congress, 2nd Session, House Vote No. 366

U.S. House, 106th Congress, 2nd Session, House Vote No. 45

U.S. House, 106th Congress, 2nd Session, House vote No. 43

Ed Tibbetts, "Reform Law Could Factor Into Election," Quad-City Times, 2 July 2006.

January 9th, 2006 CQ Weekly - CQ Annual Report: Vote Studies, Key Votes for 2005.