It seems like a simple question: is the Congressional Budget Office qualified to assess what impact a major hike to the minimum wage would have on employment?
In February, the CBO said raising the minimum wage to $10.10, as President Obama has proposed, would lift 900,000 workers over the poverty line but at a cost of 500,000 jobs.
The estimate is an obvious inconvenience to the minimum wage push, and Wednesday Obama’s Labor Secretary, Tom Perez, went to elaborate lengths to avoid giving a “yes” or “no” answer to whether the CBO was qualified to weigh in on the matter – and had to be rescued by liberal Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Right after the CBO estimate came out, the White House downplayed the report, and the president’s Council of Economic Advisers chairman, Jason Furman, told reporters that its premise–raising the minimum wage has a direct impact on employment–was false. “Zero is a perfectly reasonable estimate of the impact of the minimum wage on employment,” Furman said, according to USA Today.
Shortly thereafter, however, President Obama’s new Federal Reserve chairwoman, Janet Yellen, told Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) in a late February hearing that she trusted the CBO report’s conclusions.
That prompted the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee’s ranking GOP member, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), to ask Perez on Wednesday morning if he, like Yellen, trusted the CBO’s analysis.
“Senator Heller asked Janet Yellen, the president’s Federal Reserve Board chairman, her opinion of the Congressional Budget Office and its ability to study the impact of the minimum wage on American workers and the economy,” Alexander told Perez. “She said they’re as ‘qualified as anyone to evaluate that literature’ and in making that judgment. Do you agree with Chairman Yellen that the Congressional Budget Office is as qualified as anyone to make a judgment about the impact of the minimum wage on the American economy and the American worker?”
Instead of answering “yes” or “no,” to Alexander’s question, Perez filibustered–sparking fireworks between the committee’s top Republican and top Democrat.
“I look forward to talking to you about all of the points that you mentioned, the skills agenda is something I spend a lot of time on,” Perez said. “The president has a proposal to enhance the ITC, which I think is a great proposal. It’s not an either or, either ITC or minimum wage. The president has proposals to invest in our infrastructure.”
At that point, Alexander cut back across Perez: “That wasn’t my question. All I need is a yes or no.”
“Well actually, your question had a lot of ah,” Perez said while holding his hands up to extend his arms.
“I had one question: Do you agree with Chairman Yellen that the CBO is as qualified as anyone to issue an assessment of the impact of the minimum wage on the American worker, yes or no?”
Perez continued refusing to answer. “Senator, I have a lot of respect for the CBO as does the president as does everyone else,” Perez responded instead.
“That’s not my question,” Alexander fired back. “My question is do you agree that they’re as qualified as anyone…”
The committee’s Democrat Chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), jumped in at that point to aid Perez’s non-answer.
“Senator Alexander, Senator Alexander,” Harkin said.
“Well, I’m entitled to an answer, am I not Mr. Chairman,” Alexander replied to Harkin.
“We had a three-minute time limit and then you came to the three minutes and asked a question after you gave a speech,” Harkin responded. “I want to be respectful.”
Alexander interrupted: “A one word answer is all I’m looking for.”
“And I want to be respectful,” Harkin continued again. “The Secretary will answer as he sees fit.”
“Is the Senator not entitled to an answer to a question,” Alexander jumped back in.
“The Secretary will answer it as he wants to answer it, not as you direct him to answer it,” Harkin replied. “You can’t force him to say one thing or another. If he wants to answer that question then he can answer that question.”
“So a Senator’s not entitled to a yes or no answer to a specific question?” Alexander inquired further of Harkin.
“The Senator is entitled to ask the question and the Secretary can answer as he sees fit,” Harkin replied.
“That’s not congressional oversight in my book,” Alexander commented.
“It’s being respectful of people who want to respond in the way that they feel is best suited to answering the question,” Harkin responded.
“Well then we might as well not ask questions if we can’t get answers,” Alexander added.
At that point, Perez cut back into the exchange: “Senator, I’m trying to answer if you’ll give me an opportunity?”
“As long as it ends up with a yes or a no,” Alexander told Perez.
“Well, it will be an honest and full answer to your question sir,” Perez responded, before speaking for the next three and a half minutes without actually ever answering yes or no.
WATCH: Tom Perez ducks simple yes or no question from Sen. Alexander on minimum wage: