- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2014

From proposals aimed at poor Americans to accusing the GOP of a “war on women,” President Obama and fellow Democrats want to cordon off key blocs of voters ahead of the midterm elections, and they expanded that effort Thursday to middle-class workers by targeting overtime pay.

The president used executive authority to extend overtime pay to more employees, a step that analysts say could cost jobs and lead to legal challenges from business groups.

But for congressional Democrats seeking re-election, Mr. Obama took action at a critical time as the party sharpens its message of “opportunity for all.”

“Do I think this is a political move? Not from a lawyer’s perspective. But from a policy perspective, I think that’s a fair inference. It plays well with people who believe businesses are just going to start paying more and let their profits fall in order to pay more. And, of course, that’s not going to happen,” said Tammy McCutchen, a Washington lawyer and former administrator of the wage and hour division at the Labor Department.

Ms. McCutchen was at the department in 2004, the last time the overtime pay threshold was adjusted. That year, the figure was raised to $455 and it was the first increase since 1975.

The provision applies to workers classified as supervisors or those in managerial roles. As long as they make less than $455 each week, those employees usually are not eligible for overtime pay, even though they might work 50 or more hours a week while taking home meager paychecks.

The White House hasn’t put forth a specific figure, and the Labor Department will begin crafting a revamped overtime proposal, which then will be open to public comment before it’s finalized. Numbers ranging from $550 to $970 are rumored to be on the table.

To justify the latest move in his “year of action,” using executive orders to bypass Congress, Mr. Obama again geared his message toward working-class voters whom Democrats will need to retain control of the Senate and prevent losses in the House.

“If you’re working hard, you’re barely making ends meet, you should be paid overtime. Period,” the president said. “Working Americans have struggled through stagnant wages for too long.”

Republicans signaled that they are open to working with the administration to change overtime rules, but raised questions about the White House’s true motives.

“We hope this announcement represents a serious attempt to update current regulations and not just another political distraction from the president’s failed policies,” Reps. John Kline of Minnesota and Tim Walberg of Michigan said in a joint statement. Mr. Kline is chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Mr. Walberg heads that panel’s subcommittee on workforce protection.

In addition to the overtime proposal, the president continues to push for an increase in the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour as a means for poor Americans to work themselves into the middle class. He has signed an executive order raising the minimum rate to $10.10 for all federal contractors.

The White House also has made equal pay a central issue. It is part of an effort to portray Democrats as the party on the side of women while accusing Republicans of waging a “war on women.”

That message surely will be a key part of Democrats’ strategy this year as they highlight pay gaps between the sexes, abortion, birth control and other issues.

Mr. Obama’s action on overtime aims to get working-class Americans firmly on the side of Democrats. Analysts say it’s meant to work hand in hand with the push for a higher minimum wage.

“It’s sort of like the minimum wage. It sounds good and it makes you seem heartless if you oppose it. But there are real victims here,” said Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute who specializes in tax reform and economics.

Mr. Mitchell said businesses simply will hire fewer workers or cut the amount of overtime they allow to avoid losing profits. Those problems aside, the initiative plays well with average voters, Mr. Mitchell said.

“The public doesn’t really understand [these issues] very well, so they’re the ones you’d want to exploit,” he said.

The timing of Mr. Obama’s announcement also is not a coincidence, Ms. McCutchen said. In addition to helping Democrats with their midterm campaigns, beginning the process now ensures that new overtime rules can take effect before Mr. Obama leaves office.

Drafting the rules, reviewing public comment and deciding on the final language could take years, Ms. McCutchen said.

Legal challenges could be raised, she said, if the Labor Department goes too far and suggests a massive increase. Beyond lawsuits, little can be done to stop the process.

“Congress can’t stop this, unless both houses of Congress vote on the same language to stop it, and you know that’s not going to happen,” Ms. McCutchen said. “The secretary of labor has a lot of authority and power. In the end, they have the power to implement whatever they want to implement.”

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