As disgraced former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel reportedly keeps floating his name for a Biden administration appointment, he is recycling an old Republican plan to let states opt out of a higher minimum wage. Now, he is slated to headline the annual conference of one of the major corporate lobbying groups fighting against congressional Democrats’ $15 minimum wage legislation.
The National Restaurant Association, the lobbying group that led the fight to block a minimum wage increase in the COVID-19 relief bill passed last month, will be hosting Emanuel as a keynote speaker for the group’s virtual conference on April 20, an event entitled: “Seeking Unity: Conversations on How We Can Come Together.”
The speaking slot follows Emanuel’s Washington Post op-ed last month arguing that omitting a minimum wage increase from the American Rescue Plan was not a big deal, and asserting that Democrats should work with Republicans on a plan that does not guarantee $15 nationwide.
$15 for All States Who Want It
“No one likes to have a good policy idea upended by a parliamentarian, but that’s not the big story here,” Emanuel wrote last month, arguing: “Key Republicans are raising a white flag in a long-stalemated, zero-sum economic debate. A higher minimum wage is clearly in the offing.”
Emanuel insisted that Democrats should package together an extension of tax credits included in the COVID relief bill and a $15 minimum wage plan that would allow states to opt out in favor of $12 if they want.
“To begin,” Emanuel wrote, “the package should set the new rate at $15 an hour, tying that figure to inflation moving forward, and giving states the right to opt out of $15 per hour in favor of a floor closer to $12. (This has the added political benefit of forcing those lawmakers who oppose the higher figure to vote affirmatively to cut it.)”
The idea of a minimum wage increase that states can opt out of has been proposed by Republicans in the past. Former president George W. Bush campaigned on the concept more than twenty years ago. “Aides say Bush backs increasing the federal minimum wage but only if states can opt out if they find it would hurt their economies,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in September 2000.
Biden economic advisers Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein coauthored a report arguing against the opt-out idea shortly after Bush took office.
“There is no good rationale for allowing states to opt out of the increase,” they wrote. “The states most likely to do so are the lowest-wage states, where the increase is most needed.”
Recent experience suggests that Republicans would not have any qualms about cutting down low-wage workers in their states, given the opportunity. In the decade since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, GOP politicians in twelve states still have not expanded Medicaid to cover poor, uninsured residents.
“The Wrong Bill at the Wrong Time”
One group who might appreciate Emanuel’s effort to let states evade a $15 minimum wage: the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which has long been one of the chief opponents of policies to raise the minimum wage.
The NRA, a trade association that represents restaurants around the country, brought in a whopping $289 million in revenue in 2018, according to the group’s tax return with the IRS. The organization’s political action committee donated more than $700,000 to federal candidates in the 2020 election cycle, with the vast majority going to Republicans, according to OpenSecrets.
Leaders on the NRA board include the CEO of the Golden Corral Corporation, the cofounder of Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, the CEO of Galatoire’s Restaurants in Louisiana, and the owner of the Oak Hill Tavern in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Last year, the NRA spent $2.6 million on federal lobbying efforts, which included pressing lawmakers to block the Raise the Wage Act, Democratic legislation that would boost the minimum wage to $15 by 2025.
The NRA opposed the inclusion of the Raise the Wage Act in Democrats’ recent COVID relief legislation, writing in February to congressional leaders: “We share your view that a national discussion on wage issues for working Americans is needed — but the Raise the Wage Act is the wrong bill at the wrong time for our nation’s restaurants.”
History With the Minimum Wage
Emanuel’s recent rhetoric about the minimum wage tracks with his behavior over many decades.
During his time as a top aide in Bill Clinton’s administration, Emanuel advised the president against supporting a plan by Democratic senator Ted Kennedy to raise the minimum wage to $7.25, according to a 1998 White House memo we reviewed.
Emanuel served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010. While Obama pledged to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 during his 2008 presidential campaign, he didn’t push to do so during his first two years in office, when Democrats had full control of Congress.
While mayor of Chicago, Emanuel remained silent on the issue of a minimum wage for the first three years of his term, and he only backed an increase after facing pressure on the campaign trail to do so. He ultimately supported a $13 minimum wage in the city, but some alleged that he short-circuited a statewide minimum wage increase.
Emanuel’s time as mayor ended in scandal, after city officials suppressed video footage of the police murder of teenager Laquan McDonald. Now, he’s a senior advisor at the investment banking firm Centerview Partners and an ABC News contributor.
Conference agendas show Emanuel is also a regular on the DC speaking circuit. The Harry Walker Agency, the speakers bureau that exclusively books Emanuel now, does not disclose his speaking fee, but suggests booking Emanuel in tandem with Karl Rove.
An old AAE Speakers Bureau bio page for Emanuel, since deleted, listed his fee last year as $50,000–$100,000, according to the American Prospect. If that number is correct, Emanuel would earn at least three times more for one quick speech than a minimum wage worker earns over the course of an entire year.
Earlier this month, Emanuel was scheduled to speak at the Credit Union National Association alongside his ABC News pundit roundtable colleague, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Christie and Emanuel previously spoke together last year at an event hosted by the National Association of Realtors.
Emanuel was separately scheduled to speak last year at a conference held by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a lobbying group for fossil fuel interests and chemical companies, but the event was canceled due to COVID.