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How Biden will raise some workers' minimum wage without Congress

For federal contractors, Biden is borrowing a worthwhile page from Obama's playbook -- and there's nothing Republicans can do about it.
Image: President Biden delivers remarks at the White House in Washington
President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room at the White House on April 15, 2021.Tom Brenner / Reuters

In Congress, legislative efforts to raise the federal minimum wage have struggled in the face of conservative opposition, but as NBC News reported this morning, President Joe Biden can raise some workers' wages -- and there's nothing Republicans can do to stop it.

President Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order Tuesday that would raise the minimum wage for federal contractors and tipped employees working on government contracts to $15 an hour, senior administration officials said. The raise from $10.95 an hour would begin in January, and agencies would have to implement the measure no later than March.

This comes on the heels of a separate presidential order in which Biden also raised the minimum wage for federal employees to $15 an hour.

It's difficult to say precisely how many federal contractors will benefit from the new policy, though a senior administration official told NBC News the change would affect "hundreds of thousands" of workers.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because the last Democratic president took a very similar step.

In early 2014, when Republicans also refused to approve a minimum-wage increase, then-President Barack Obama raised the minimum wage for federal contractors -- shortly before a State of the Union address -- to $10.10 an hour.

As we discussed at the time, because government contracts can be lucrative, and so many private enterprises want federal work, Obama, with a stroke of a pen, gave a raise to a whole lot of employees. The shift also sent a message to the private sector that to compete in the labor force, businesses should follow suit.

Republicans were less than pleased, but faced a messaging challenge: since most Americans support a higher minimum wage, the GOP didn't want to be seen attacking the Democrat for doing something popular. As an alternative, Republicans pretended to be outraged that Obama advanced one of his goals by way of an executive order.

Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), for example, called Obama a "Socialistic dictator" and the "Kommandant-In-Chef." (I assume he meant "chief.") Then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested the minimum-wage hike for contractors was unconstitutional.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was so incensed that he wrote an op-ed condemning the "imperial presidency of Barack Obama."

The GOP hysterics were absurd at the time, and seven years later, they seem even worse. Whether Republicans will even bother to throw tantrums this week is unclear, but I'm skeptical: GOP foot-stomping proved irrelevant in 2014, and given recent events, the right is far more interested in Dr. Seuss and non-existent meat bans than White House policymaking.

Either way, thousands of contractors -- from construction workers to custodial workers to military-base workers -- are about to see a generous raise.