Why a Democratic City Council Is Working With a Republican Congress To Overturn a Minimum Wage Bill

Restaurant workers and bartenders generally opposed the minimum wage ballot initiative, which passed despite their opposition.


Photo by Eric Boehm

Let's get one thing out of the way right up front: bartenders and restaurant workers in Washington, D.C., did not ask the city to raise their wages and eliminate their tips.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Many tipped workers from the restaurant and bar scene in D.C. opposed the minimum wage initiative approved by the city's voters in a low-turnout primary election last month. That ballot question, Initiative 77, was pushed by a national labor organization with designs on unionizing service sector workers.

And while the idea of boosting the minimum wage for tipped workers in the city from the current level of $3.89 per hour to $15 per hour might sound progressive, the reality is that many servers and bartenders take home far more than $15 per hour when tips are included, so the passage of Initiative 77 could actually see their take-home pay cut.

Despite opposition from the very people who were supposed to be helped by the proposal, Initiative 77 passed on June 19.

Those servers and bartenders might win after all. Members of Congress and the District of Columbia City Council are taking steps to thrwart the will of the people and block Initiative 77 from taking effect.

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) is preparing to file an appropriations bill that would block the implementation of Initiative 77. The bill could be offered as an amendment on the House floor as early as next week.

"Congressman Palmer believes that the tipped wage increase is bad policy, and the Constitution empowers Congress to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia," Elizabeth Hance, Palmer's press secretary, tells Reason. "In instances where D.C. attempts to implement really bad policies like the tipped wage increase, Congress should intervene to correct them."

Palmer, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who serves as chairman of that libertarian-ish grouping within the House GOP.

The congressional effort follows close on the heels of Tuesday's vote in the city council, where a majority of the council's 13 members supported a proposal to overturn Initiative 77.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Council Chairman Paul Mendelson said the wording of the ballot initiative was misleading—this is absolutely true, as I'll explain in a moment—and that he believed the council should take action because "for a measure that is advertised as helping workers, to have so many workers opposed is striking."

Initiative 77 was pushed by the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), which has pushed successfully for similar laws in places like San Francisco and Minneapolis. Though it was founded after 9/11 to help displaced workers from the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant, the group has morphed into a union front, and previously made headlines during the summer of 2013 for staging Occupy Wall Street-style sit-ins at some restaurants in major cities. Since then, it has maintained a notably lower profile, but has continued to push policies like Initiative 77.

Diana Ramirez, co-director of ROC's D.C. chapter, told the Post that the council's repeal effort was "flat-out voter suppression."

It's anything but. Congress and the D.C. City Council are doing what elected officials in a representative democracy are supposed to do: act as a check on the will of the masses. And it should tell you something that a Republican Congress and the city council of a heavily Democratic city like D.C. are on the same side of this issue—the same side that both management and employees were on during the run-up to the election.

If anyone is engaged in chicanery here, it's ROC and the other progressive groups that pushed Initiative 77 in the first place. While the ballot question made it sound like tipped workers earn less than $4 per hour currently, actual D.C. law requires that employers top-up tipped employees pay if they do not earn enough in tips to surpass the $12.50 minimum wage that applies to all non-tipped workers in the city.

In other words, all workers already earn at least $12.50 per hour, but tipped workers have the opportunity to earn more—sometimes significantly more. Servers and bartenders that I interviewed for a previous story about Initiative 77 told me they can make $300 to $400 during an eight-hour shift.

The most frustrating thing about Proposition 77, Julia Calomaris, a server at Bistrot Du Coin on Connecticut Avenue told me, is how often people seem to think voting for Prop 77 is helping restaurant workers.

"People have no idea how much money you can make working in a restaurant," says Calomaris, who has worked in the industry for 17 years. Imposing a $15 minimum wage and eliminating tips is "giving help to people who aren't asking for it," she says.

It's not just servers and bartenders who could lose if Initiative 77 is allowed to become law. The new rules could ripple through the restaurant industry, affecting business decisions ranging from how many support staff to hire to where to locate.

"When the cost of business gets too high, the first people to be laid off are going to be the prep cooks, support staff, bussers," Ryan Aston, who bartends at the Hamilton, an upscale bar just a few blocks from the White House, told Reason last month. "When labor costs become too high, I mean, it's not a charity. You're in business to make money. I love what I do, but I do it because I get paid."

Overturning the will of the people isn't great optics, of course, and elected officials should endeavor to do so only when it is clear that the people have erred. This is probably one of those times.

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  1. Wait. Democrats are against the popular vote now?

    1. The Democrats are for getting reelected

    2. At less than 20% turnout it seems the vote, indeed voting itself, isn’t that popular.

    3. Somebody must’ve cheaped out on the campaign donations.

      I’m looking at you, ROC. SEIU would never have made such a fundamental blunder.

  2. Fewer than 20% of registered voters voted in the primary, since aside from the Initiative there were almost no contested races: none in the Libertarian or Green primaries, none in the one Ward where a Republican is running, and only one or two races in the Democrats’ primary. I don’t think every Democrat race was won by the incumbent.

    So “will of the masses” is kind of misleading. Something like eight percent of DC voters showed up to vote for the Initiative 7, and 7% showed up to vote against it.

    1. So the only logical conclusion is that the 80% are just fine with it. If they thought it was wrong, they would have voted against it. For further information, refer to the 2016 Presidential election.
      It was ‘anybody but Trump’ against ‘anybody but Hillary’, and it was determined by who cared enough to show up.

      1. I can think of a few other logical conclusions.

        1. D.C. has odd voting patterns anyway where non-presidential election year primaries often have higher turnout than presidential election year primaries, sometimes more than double. For instance 2010 had almost an additional 92,000 votes cast than 2008 which is more than the total of 89,500 people who voted this year. This year was even an oddball but that is likely because there was a dramatic 25% increase in registered voters in 2016 which likely propped up the primary that year.
          Either way it’s hard to justify this being the will of the people when 90% of the population didn’t vote for it.

          1. Oops, wrong thread level.

            1. That’s OK, nobody cares anyway.

    2. This “will of the masses,” “will of the people” stuff is always misleading and always has been. It’s a bullshit concept with a nice ring to it invented by that collectivist asshole Rousseau. Individuals have a will. Groups do not.

      An election might be reflective of the wills of a majority of individuals in a group, but don’t pretend that “will” somehow takes on a different metaphysical quality in that case.

  3. Sorry for the bad editing: every Democrat primary race was won by an incumbent.

  4. Good for the workers. They recognize that the whole point of unions is to turn them into indistinguishable cogs and squelch any desire to rise up above mediocrity.

  5. Just another example of the mean old Republican establishment federal government imposing itself on the local government’s expression of the electorate.

    Up the rebels!

  6. Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC)

    Which I believe is a Union front group.

    1. the group has morphed into a union front

      Or I could just read the article in full.

      1. Who does that, though?

        1. At least I realize there’s an article. So gimme some credit for improvement.

          1. Yeah, I used to think it was just the headlines. Gave REASON a lot credit for being easy to read. Boy was my face read, unlike the articles.

  7. “Congressman Palmer believes that the tipped wage increase is bad policy, and the Constitution empowers Congress to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia,”

    While I am for getting rid of minimum wage. I really can’t how an Alabama rep has any say in this. Hated when Chavez stuck his nose into the DC Weed initiative which I was for. And yes I know the Constitution gives Congress to oversee DC but that doesn’t mean they should for these type of issues. If a law they pass isn’t blowing up the DC budget they should stay out of it.

    1. You’re asking for sense and restraint from Congress?

    2. Congress can’t stay out of it because the DC government is a legal fiction. The United States is exactly that – a union of sovereign states. As sovereigns, they have independent legislative power. The states can make or repeal any law they like as long as they don’t violate the treaty that binds them together (in our case, the US Constitution). Cities, counties and townships do not have independent power – their power is solely derivative of what the state allows them.

      The District of Columbia is a city with no state above it. The land for DC was ceded by the states directly to the federal Congress. As such, Congress has sole authority to make laws in DC. A couple of decades ago, Congress finally delegated some limited powers and allowed the creation of a city legislature but, like cities that are part of a state, their powers are completely subordinate to Congress.

  8. Stop putting ballot initiatives on primary election ballots. That seems like a no-brainer solution to me.

    Otherwise, you get the government you vote (or choose not to vote) for.

    1. Yeah, that seems like a really bad way to do an initiative. Primaries are party affairs. Shouldn’t be anything but selecting candidates. Though I suppose in cities where one party has almost complete control, the primary is often the real election.

    2. It is just another way that the Powers That Be can rig the result.

      Around here, the city council always puts the proposals for tax increases on primary election ballots in off years. Better chance of them passing.

    3. I’d go so far as to require some sort of quorum on initiatives, say either at least 66.7% turnout or passed by 50%+1 of registered voters.

      Heck, I’d be willing to extend that to elected offices too. If that means that a seat is vacant in Congress, so be it. The state is free to hold a special election every year until you get a quorum.

  9. This is a bad idea.

    Let this play out as a lesson to the proggies. What better test subject than Democrats?

    1. Sadly, they won’t understand the result of the lesson, blame failure on the free market and insist on more government regulation.

  10. Tipped wage credit makes separate rules for certain workers, mandated by government fiat.
    The government picks the winners and losers. Tipped workers are complaining about losing their government mandated perk. Boohoo for them. Whatever your thoughts on the minimum wage, the tip credit is bullshit.

    1. Tipped positions aren’t government mandated jobs dumbass. There are restaurants currently that operate as non tip establishments. The tipped position is an option for business owners, not mandated. God you’re dumb.

  11. Government should stay out of wages all together.

    1. Especially their own. Let the voters decide on their pay.

  12. Clearly Nazis.

  13. If you think representative democracy is bad you should try direct democracy…

  14. The GOP Congresscritturs are crazy to intervene.

    It’s easy to portray this as them intervening to squish the voice of the people, when they represent 0.000007% of the people involved. Yeah it’s a stupid policy, but it’s DC’s problem. Let DC work it out. If in the meantime a number of rubes are alerted to the stupidity of high minimum wages, so much the better.

    The GOP Congress should “Don’t just do something – stand there !”

    1. D.c. problems are literally congressional problems since Congress has oversight.

      1. I don’t think of them as problems, more like teaching moments. Granted, 90% will learn the wrong thing but you have to look at as a process that the whole village has to go through. I actually have hope that Venezuela will be one of the most free countries on the planet one day, assuming they learn enough before the heat death of the universe of course.

        1. The idea cannot be extinguished in the west. Look at the pictures of the anti-Trump rallies in the UK from this weekend. So many of the signs reference socialism, as if that’s a direct solution to the “problem” of Trump. If you listen to what the prevailing Trump-hate propaganda says over there, there are all kinds of gruesome urban myths about the horrific deeds of Trump doing things to brown babies, like ICE isn’t even a thing, you know, he injects Mexican babies with a heroin-cyanide cocktail for fun with his old rich white buddies and then drop kicks them across the Rio Grande while wearing a novelty oversized baby-kickin’ boot. And, don’t forget LITERALLY FASCIST NAZI RACIST HITLER.

          1. Vicious lies. Trump doesn’t drop kick Mexican babies. He’s civilized. He uses a golf club like the rest of us.

  15. When raised minimum wage laws increase the price of food the Soy Boys here will be busy blaming it on tariffs.

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