Will Trump Follow Bushes on Wages for Storm Recovery Workers?

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By Elliott T. Dube

President Donald Trump has the power to set aside the Davis-Bacon Act’s requirement that contractors on federally funded construction projects pay prevailing wages for reconstruction work in areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. But it is unclear whether he will follow two of his predecessors in doing so.

President George W. Bush suspended Davis-Bacon most recently, in connection with recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His father, President George H.W. Bush, also did so in 1993 following Hurricanes Andrew in Florida and Iniki in Hawaii.

White House spokeswoman Kelly Love told Bloomberg BNA she is “not aware of anything right now” in terms of any impending White House action regarding Davis-Bacon.

Davis-Bacon supporters have successfully overcome repeated attempts, over several decades, to chip away at the law’s requirements. Members of Congress have tried and failed to repeal the law.

The House in debating the budget bill Sept. 7 rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that would have prohibited federal spending to “implement, administer, or enforce” Davis-Bacon.

The amendment failed in a 173-240 vote.

Trump’s Position on Davis-Bacon Murky

Speculation continues as to whether the Trump administration has plans for Davis-Bacon.

The law provides that the president may suspend its requirements in the event of a “national emergency.” Prior to the Bush presidencies, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon each briefly suspended the law for reasons unrelated to storm recovery.

Trump notably omitted any mention of Davis-Bacon in an April 4 speech at North America’s Building Trades Unions’ annual legislative conference. He told the New York Times April 5 that he would “make an announcement” shortly regarding Davis-Bacon without providing further details. But the administration since then has taken no major action on the law.

NABTU has heard nothing from the White House regarding any plan to suspend Davis-Bacon for Harvey-related projects, a labor organization spokesman told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 5. NABTU, which has consistently supported keeping Davis-Bacon’s protections intact, said in a Sept. 1 statement that standards for a “successful clean-up and re-build process” should include maintaining prevailing wage coverage.

Glenn Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 7 that he would be “a bit surprised” if the Trump administration doesn’t suspend the law’s requirements in this situation. The chamber has come out in favor of repealing of Davis-Bacon.

Lawmakers Mum

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill in January that would exclude federally funded infrastructure projects from Davis-Bacon’s coverage. As a U.S. representative in 2005, Flake co-signed a letter in which dozens of House Republicans urged President George W. Bush to suspend the law’s requirements in Katrina’s wake. Flake’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The office of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has yet to receive information about any impending White House movement on Davis-Bacon, a spokeswoman for Cornyn told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 7.

The office of Rep. Gene Green (R-Texas), whose legislative district covers eastern parts of the Houston metro area, hasn’t received word of any impending Davis-Bacon action by Trump. “I don’t think it’s something they would necessarily tell us until right when they plan on doing it,” a spokesman for Green said.

The office of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Local Workers Could Pay Price

The Construction Employers of America, a coalition of specialty trade contractor groups, opposes suspending the law’s requirements, spokesman Jack Jacobson told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 7.

Doing so would give out-of-state contractors an “unfair competitive advantage,” Jacobson said. After Hurricane Katrina, some “unscrupulous profiteers” hired undocumented immigrants on federal projects and failed to pay them. “As undocumented workers, they had no legal recourse, compounding their exploitation and abuse,” he said.

Suspending the prevailing wage law would also come at the expense of workers who live in Harvey-hit areas, Jacobson said. “Undercutting their wages at a time when many will have lost property and bear personal recovery expenses would only compound their losses.”

Some Davis-Bacon opponents are advocating for the law’s suspension. Mark Mix, the president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, urged Trump in a Sept. 1 blog post to suspend Davis-Bacon’s requirements during Harvey recovery efforts. The law effectively limits participation on federally funded projects to “politically-connected unionized firms,” and it “artificially” inflates project costs, Mix said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elliott T. Dube in Washington at edube@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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