This vote was on a motion to kill an amendment by Jim DeMint, R-S.C., that would prohibit funds in the bill from being used to enforce a provision in current law (called “Davis-Bacon”) that requires federal contractors to be paid the “prevailing wage.” DeMint’s amendment would be in force for one year and apply only to bridge projects. The amendment was offered to the bill that funds transportation and housing programs in fiscal 2008.
In this context the “prevailing wage” means that the federal government must pay contract workers on construction projects on the same wage scale as other workers in a geographical area. Republicans, who dislike the fact that this often means paying contract workers the same as local union workers, frequently take aim at watering down or erasing this law. After DeMint offered his amendment, Patty Murray, D-Wash., made a motion to “table” (or kill) the amendment, which is what this vote was on.
DeMint said the Davis-Bacon law sometimes has the effect of squeezing small and minority-owned businesses out of bidding on these contracts.
“What happens in most parts of the country, such as South Carolina, when a small company—perhaps a minority-owned company—may be trying to compete with a large company, they will come in with a lower bid, but then they have to allow the Federal Government to set the wages,” DeMint said. He added that the American Association of Builders and Contractors, the lobby group for road-builders, estimates that Davis-Bacon raises the cost of construction by 32 percent.
Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said the Davis-Bacon law was enacted during the Great Depression to ensure that the federal government’s large-scale construction projects were not interfering with local wage scales.
“It is very simple. This is necessary because of the importance of having high-skilled work being done on the bridges and roads of this country. The American taxpayer’s dollar is a scarce dollar. We ought to make sure it is not going to be used by fly-by-night operations. We want to make sure those people who are going to receive it are going to have the skills and training to make sure the roads and bridges are going to be safe and secure. That is what Davis-Bacon does. It takes into consideration what the local wages are. Prevailing wages are published on the Internet. It is easy for any of the construction companies to understand it. They all understand it. We don’t get complaints that they don’t understand it. It is just in many instances they would rather get fly-by-night operations,” Kennedy said.
Murray then moved to table DeMint’s amendment. By a vote of 56-37, the Senate agreed to table the amendment, effectively killing it. Every Democrat present voted to kill the amendment. All but nine Republicans present voted against killing the amendment. The end result was that the bill went forward without language nullifying a law that requires federal contractors to be paid the “prevailing wage” for bridge construction projects.