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August 25, 2013 10:47 AM President Obama could do something that would help the economy, honor Dr. King’s legacy, and improve the lives of millions of workers — with the stroke of a pen

By Kathleen Geier

You know the drill — we have a dysfunctional political system and a gridlocked Congress. The House is firmly in the grip of a band of Republican maniacs and the Senate, though technically Democratic, requires a virtually impossible filibuster-proof majority to get anything passed.

So we should just throw up our hands and admit that nothing productive can be done in Washington until we get a Democratic Congress, right?

Wrong. One powerful tool presidents have at their disposal is the executive order. With the stroke of a pen, an executive order can make a given policy a fait accompli — no dealing with an obstreperous, hostile House or with demanding, egomaniacal senators required. Of course, executive orders only apply to a very limited set of policies. But in practical terms, they can do a world of good.

Take, for instance, one executive action that activists are currently championing: an order that would, in the words of In These Times’ Bruce Vail, “establish a ‘living wage’ for workers whose employment is tied to federal government contracts, grants, loans, or property leases.” There are over two million such low-wage workers in the U.S. — over twice as many low-wage workers as there are at Walmart, which makes the federal government, surprisingly, the nation’s largest low-wage employer.

As Vail reports, during this week’s 50th anniversary March on Washington festivities, participants strongly urged President Obama to sign the order. The measure is backed by labor unions, by activist groups like Demos and Good Jobs Nation, and by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. A recent New York Times editorial came out in favor of the measure. Vail describes one particularly moving scene:

One of the most poignant calls came Wednesday from Alvin Turner, a veteran of the famous 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike. Recalling a recent face-to-face meeting with Obama, Turner said “he told me personally he was working hard for the little man. If he don’t sign, he’ll disappoint me badly.”

President Johnson signed a similar executive order in 1965. In fact, beginning in the 1930s, as the labor movement grew and the bargaining power of working people grew stronger, a number of laws and executive orders were passed that improved the pay and working conditions of millions federal contract employees. But as the Times editorial noted, “over time, those protections have been eroded by special-interest exemptions, complex contracting processes and lax enforcement.” That’s why a new order is badly needed. The Times made another smart recommendation, which is that the president order “federal agencies to conduct reviews of contracts to see if the work should be done in-house.” There is strong evidence that privatization is often more expensive and less efficient than letting the public sector do public sector work — even when private sector contractors pay their workers miserably low wages.

Finally, as I’ve pointed out before, increasing the wages of low-wage workers acts as a stimulus, so the executive order would help not just this particular set of workers, but the economy as a whole. In fact the minimum wage was originally enacted during the Great Depression more to get the economy moving again than as an aid to low-wage workers. And there’s no question that our economy could use the stimulus. Unemployment is still quite high: 7.4 percent nationwide, and outrageously high in certain parts of the country — 10.3 percent in my hometown of Chicago, for example.

This Wednesday, President Obama is scheduled to speak at the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, marking the 50th anniversary to the day of the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech. I can’t imagine a more perfect time for the president to announce he is signing the executive order creating a living a wage that would dramatically improve the lives of millions of low-earning, hard-working Americans.

Your move, Mr. President.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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