Republicans in Congress and D.C. Democrats agree: Overturn voters on hourly wage hike

Democrats who run D.C. and their ultraconservative GOP foes in Congress found something they agree on: annulling an hourly wage hike approved by District voters.

House Republicans on Wednesday joined local lawmakers in attempting to overturn Initiative 77, which would increase wages for servers, bartenders and other workers who rely on tips. It passed with the support of 56 percent of D.C. voters in the city’s June 19 primary.

U.S. Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who leads the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, and Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) have proposed amendments that would block the city from spending money to implement the ballot measure.

The move comes a day after a Democratic majority on the D.C. Council backed legislation to repeal the new law.

The maneuvers by congressional Republicans have created an awkward dilemma for local lawmakers, who usually rail against federal interference but now find themselves on the same side of a contentious issue.

Because of D.C.’s unique status as a federal district, Congress has the power to overturn local laws and spending decisions. Republicans have used this authority to block the use of local funds for recreational marijuana regulations, abortions for low-income women and needle exchange programs designed to reduce the spread of HIV.

Initiative 77 gradually eliminates the tipped wage that allows employers to pay workers just a few dollars an hour and count tips toward the standard minimum wage. It’s part of a national effort to boost wages for restaurant workers.

“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,” said Elizabeth Hance, his spokeswoman.

She did not answer a question about how the issue came to his attention, but said the office had not heard from “outside groups supportive or opposed to the initiative.” A spokesman for Meadows did not immediately return a request for comment.

The Council is planning to hold a hearing on the repeal of Initiative 77 when lawmakers return from summer recess. And some say there’s no reason for federal lawmakers to get involved.

“Congress should allow the local legislative process to play out,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).

Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large) said they don’t want help from Congress to overturn Initiative 77.

Spokespeople for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who opposed the measure but hasn’t taken a stance on repeal, and the other four lawmakers who co-sponsored repeal legislation did not immediately return requests for comment.

Progressive activists on social media quickly pointed out the irony of the situation.

“I love when the Council for our progressive, overwhelmingly Democratic city is on the same page as *checks notes* the chair of the Freedom Caucus,” tweeted Morgan Finkelstein, a staffer for the Center for American Progress.

The groups leading the campaigns for and against Initiative 77 said Congress should butt out.

“This is a deeply undemocratic move by Republicans in Congress to strip D.C. voters of their right to home rule,” said Diana Ramirez of the One Fair Wage D.C. campaign backing Initiative 77.

“We do not support Congress interfering with the home rule affairs of the District of Columbia,” said Kathy Hollinger of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Palmer and Meadows also introduced an amendment to stop D.C. from enforcing a mandate to purchase health insurance. The nation’s capital joined several states to pass a local version of the insurance mandate that was eliminated as part of last year’s federal tax overhaul.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city’s non-voting representative in the House, vowed to fight both amendments when they come up for consideration next week.

“Representatives Meadows and Palmer are up to their old tricks again by abusing congressional authority over the District to try to undemocratically impose their views on our residents,” Norton said in a statement. “As to Initiative 77 on tipped wages, that local issue should be decided solely by D.C., not unaccountable members of Congress trying to interfere in the District’s local affairs.”

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