Tuesday, January 28, 2014
President Obama will announce tonight during his State of the Union speech that he will increase the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour. He'll do this by executive order, without specific congressional authorization or action, and notwithstanding the statutory minimum wage of $7.25.
Can he do this?
Some Republicans have cried foul, arguing that the action exceeds the President's Article II authority and thus violates the Constitution. But the action is hardly unprecedented, and probably supported by the President's statutory authority, let alone his constitutional authority over the executive branch. In other words, the action is probably a valid exercise of power that Congress granted the President, not a usurpation of power in violation of Article II limits.
Republicans who have criticized the action point to the federal statutory minimum wage. They say that the federal statutory minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, set in the Fair Labor Standards Act, limits Presidential authority to order a higher minimum wage for government contractors. Indeed, the FLSA says that "[e]very employer shall pay . . . wages . . . not less than . . . $7.25 an hour . . . ." FLSA Section 206.
But the FLSA sets a floor. Nothing in the FLSA prevents an employer from paying more than the minimum. And nothing prevents the President from ordering executive agencies to require contract bids to include wages higher than the minimum.
Indeed, another federal statute, the Federal Property and Adminstrative Services Act of 1949, or FPASA, seems specifically to authorize this kind of action. The FPASA was designed to centralize government property management and to use the same kind of flexibility in the public procurement process that characterizes like transactions in the private sector. The Act thus gives the President a great deal of authority to prescribe policies related to government procurement. For example, it says that the President "may prescribe such policies and directives that the President considers necessary to carry out this subtitle. . . ." 40 U.S.C. Sec. 121.
The D.C. Circuit relied on the predecessor to that section in 1979 in AFL-CIO v. Kahn, 618 F.2d 784, to uphold President Carter's EO directing the Council on Wage and Price Stability to establish voluntary wage and price standards for noninflationary behavior for the entire economy. The Kahn court also recognized that other presidents had imposed similar requirements on government contractors, like President Johnson's EO that federal contractors not discriminate based on age, a GSA regulation requiring that procurement of materials and supplies for use outside the U.S. be restricted to goods produced within the U.S., and President Nixon's EO excluding certain state prisoners from employment on federal contract work. Indeed, there's a long line of similar requirements imposed by Presidents.
The D.C. Circuit didn't even apply Justice Jackson's Youngstown framework to the problem, because the President simply relied on his statutory authority under the FPASA, not inherent Article II authority. The court treated the case as an exercise in statutory construction--whether the President had authority under the FPASA.
Given the nature of the minimum wage in the FLSA, and given the President's broad authority to prescribe policies to enhance government contracting, President Obama almost surely has authority to require government contractors to use a higher minimum wage. And that's not even considering any inherent Article II authority the President may have over government contractors.
That's not to say that Congress doesn't have a check. If Congress wants to block the President's action, it probably can--by enacting a statute that specifically proscribes a higher minimum wage. (If Congress were to do this, then inherent Article II power over government contractors, if any, becomes important.) But current law doesn't seem to do that.
For more, including a nice history and summary of court rulings, check out this report by the Congressional Research Staff, Presidential Authority to Impose Requirements on Government Contractors.