Last week, the DC Council passed a bill that would force large retailers in the city to pay their workers a living wage—specifically $12.50 an hour, a bill widely seen as targeted specifically at Walmart, which has been planning to open no fewer than five stores in the city. Walmart has been playing hardball, and shortly before the vote on the bill, it threatened to pull out of deals to put three of its stores in poor neighborhoods in DC. But the council didn’t cave, and now the bill is sitting on the desk of DC Mayor Vincent Gray, who hasn’t said what he’s going to do with it.
Walmart is furiously lobbying the mayor to veto the bill, and Walmart haters and unions are furiously lobbying him to let the bill pass. Gray lives in one of the neighborhoods with a decrepit shopping center destined for a new Walmart and hopefully a new lease on life, so he is somewhat sympathetic to the retailer. On the other hand, Walmart isn’t very popular in DC, and Gray is up for reelection next year and facing a slew of challengers. DC residents are watching the fight closely to see if DC might become the first major metro area to win such a confrontation with Walmart. Sadly for those of us who live here, we will probably lose no matter what the mayor decides to do.
If Gray stands up to Walmart and lets the living wage bill go into law, in all likelihood, Congress will step in and kill it anyway. That’s because DC residents are at the mercy of people like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has oversight over the district. Unlike people in every other state, DC residents are taxed without representation. We don’t have a voting member of Congress to fight for our interests.
Not only that, Congress has to approve all legislation passed in DC, and it has the right to meddle in our affairs. So if a senator from South Carolina really thinks the district should say, impose the death penalty, he can try to make it happen. Or if a representative from Georgia wants to prove to the folks back home that he’s really into the war on drugs, he can ban the city from releasing the results of a ballot initiative that would likely have legalized medical marijuana, and then overturn the results anyway.
This sort of congressional meddling in DC affairs is maddening, but expected. Just in the past year, Congress has tried to force on DC all sorts of measures they can’t necessarily force on the rest of the country, or even their own states. These include legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks (based on discredited fetal pain research), let people carry concealed weapons, cut budgets for transportation, and create more vouchers for private religious schools.
Issa has said he wants to give DC more autonomy over its own budget and was making nice with Gray earlier this year, after seizing power over DC from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who chaired a subcommittee previously charged with DC oversight. That hasn’t prevented Issa’s colleagues from continuing to mess with DC, though. And given that Walmart employees and entities last year donated more than $2 million to federal candidates on both sides of the aisle, Issa isn’t likely to stick up for our right to self-determination. The DC living wage bill really doesn’t have much of a chance.