US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive n Corpus Christi, Texas on August 29, 2017.President Donald Trump flew into storm-ravaged Texas Tuesday in a show of solidarity and leadership in the face of the deadly devastation wrought by Harvey -- as the battered US Gulf Coast braces for even more torrential rain. Four days after Harvey slammed onshore as a monster Category Four hurricane, turning roads to rivers in America's fourth-largest city, emergency crews are still racing to reach hundreds of stranded people in a massive round-the-clock rescue operation. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
It will take years to clean up after and repair the destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey, which will come at great cost to individuals, families, companies, and the government. As such, it is imperative for President Trump to suspend Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements, which he can do by executive order, in the parts of Texas and Louisiana damaged by what is now being referred to as a once in a millennium storm.
Davis-Bacon is a more than 80 year old federal law that mandates artificially inflated wages be paid on federal contracts, thereby driving up the taxpayer cost of federally-funded projects by billions of dollars annually. A 2011 Heritage Foundation study found Davis-Bacon adds nearly $11 billion per year to construction costs.
Suspending Davis-Bacon’s inflated wage requirements would not be an unprecedented move for the White House. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush partially suspended Davis-Bacon for the areas of of Florida, Louisiana, and Hawaii that were affected by Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki. President George W. Bush suspended Davis-Bacon in 2005 to mitigate cleanup and reconstruction costs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In addition to making taxpayer-funded federal projects more costly, Davis-Bacon is a law whose creation was inspired by racist motives. In a June Washington Post column, George Will lays out a detailed account of the racist origins of Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements:
In 1927, Rep. Robert Bacon, a Long Island Republican, was miffed because the low bidder for a construction project in his district — a veterans’ hospital — was an Alabama contractor who used black labor. That year, when Bacon first introduced his legislation, he showed that he was not a narrow-gauge bigot. He inserted into the Congressional Record the following statement by 34 professors concerning immigration legislation:
‘We urge the extension of the quota system to all countries of North and South America from which we have substantial immigration and in which the population is not predominantly of the white race. . . . Only by this method can that large proportion of our population which is descended from the colonists . . . have their proper racial representation.’”
Will goes on to explain how Davis-Bacon served to limit black Americans’ right to earn a living:
In 1931, the unemployment rate of blacks was approximately the same as the rate for the general population. Davis-Bacon is one reason the rate for blacks began to deviate adversely. In 1932, generally there were about 3,500 workers building what became Hoover Dam. Never more than 30 were black.”
While the need to suspend Davis-Bacon for Hurricane Harvey cleanup efforts is urgent, permanent repeal of federal prevailing wage requirements should be the ultimate goal for President Trump and congressional Republicans.
By repealing this misguided and inherently racist law, federal lawmakers would free up billions of dollars in taxpayer savings that could be redeployed for other priorities, such as needed infrastructure projects. Over 30 states have state-level prevailing wage requirements similar to Davis-Bacon. Innovative governors and lawmakers in a number of states have begun moving to repeal those laws in order to save taxpayer dollars and free up scarce resources for other projects and programs.
West Virginia became the most recent state to repeal its prevailing wage law, which state lawmakers did by overriding a veto from then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last year. In the first two months following prevailing wage repeal, West Virginia taxpayers saved $20 million, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors of West Virginia.
One year prior to the repeal of West Virginia’s inflated wage requirements, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed into law a repeal of prevailing wage requirements for local projects in the Badger State. Gov. Walker and Wisconsin lawmakers are now looking to finish the job they started two years ago by repealing prevailing wage requirements for state projects this year.
Wisconsin Senator Leah Vukmir (R), who expected to run for U.S. Senate next year against Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic incumbent, explains how repeal of prevailing wage laws save taxpayers and free up scarce resources for pressing needs and government priorities:
The potential savings that would be achieved by repealing Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws are staggering. When you consider the possible savings from eliminating prevailing wage, it is important to remember that those savings could be redeployed in a multitude of ways, ranging from additional projects to tax relief,” Vukmir said.