COMMENTARY: An executive order with moral authority

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25, 2011.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, photo courtesy of the White House via Flickr

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25, 2011.

(RNS) Many of us believe skyrocketing income inequality is the most important economic, political and moral issue confronting our nation. Everyone from members of Congress to Pope Francis has called for action — and now our president is leading by example.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, photo courtesy of the White House via Flickr

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25, 2011.

In his State of the Union address, the president announced he would sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for a group of federally contracted workers. Recent research has revealed that the federal government is our nation’s leading low-wage job creator, creating more than 2 million jobs through federal contracts, loans and grants. With this stroke of the pen, the president will begin to transform the lives of many of these Americans who are struggling to survive.

Unfortunately, many conservative commentators are criticizing the president’s action. They claim he is overstepping his legal authority and even violating his constitutional powers.

What these naysayers fail to recognize is that previous presidents have invoked their executive powers to open the doors of economic opportunity for people struggling at the margins. When the country was being torn apart by racial inequality, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order to bar discrimination by federal contractors. In this moment when our national unity is being threatened by income inequality, President Obama’s executive order mandating contractors to pay a higher minimum wage follows the legal precedent established by Johnson.

But while the legal justification for presidential action against racial and economic injustice is strong, the moral justification is even stronger.

During the civil rights era, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that there is a higher moral law of justice that people of conscience must follow. Today, Pope Francis reminds us that “money must serve, not rule” and that a moral economic system should “set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential.”

Ultimately, our faith compels us to be in solidarity with people who suffer at the margins of our economy. The Christian Scriptures say that we will be judged for what we have done for those in poverty.

Using this moral standard, Obama’s executive order is more than justified; it is required.

We know this because we have marched with these workers as they went on strike as part of the Good Jobs Nation campaign, and we brought a group of these workers to meet with senior White House officials on several occasions. One of these workers was Robyn Law, a fast-food worker in the Pentagon, who went on strike because she struggles to support her disabled mother and young child on a salary of $8.75 an hour. Another worker was Melissa Roseboro, a grandmother who earns $8.43 an hour and relies on food stamps to put food on the table because she makes so little at her job at the McDonald’s inside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

We commend the president for his compassionate response to the needs of Robyn, Melissa and their co-workers.

By using the power of his pen to lift the minimum wage for federally contracted workers, Obama is affirming the dignity and worth of all working people. As the CEO of the federal government, he is also sending a powerful message to the CEOs of private corporations that they too must honor their workers with just wages. Let’s pray that these CEOs, as well as our Congress, follow the president’s example.

Still more need to be done. As people of faith, we must continue our efforts to make sure the government uses its contracting clout to ensure corporations pay workers living wages and benefits, follow labor laws and give workers a seat at the table so they don’t have to go on strike to have their voices heard.

Thank you, Mr. President, for taking an important first step in this direction and for leading us toward a more moral economy.

(Sister Simone Campbell is executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby. The Rev. Michael Livingston is national policy director of Interfaith Worker Justice and a former president of the National Council of Churches.)



  • Atheist Max


    You said, “skyrocketing income inequality is the most important economic, political and moral issue confronting our nation.”

    I completely disagree that this is a moral issue. It isn’t.
    Income inequality is a mortal threat to our economy – a clear and present DANGER.

    The USA will have no future unless it is corrected.
    To call it a moral issue is to call upon piety and righteousness – and that is always a disaster.

    Who was more ‘moral’ than Ronald Reagan when he crowed about wasteful welfare queens?
    Who was more ‘moral’ than George Bush when he advocated for the ‘job providers’?

    Today Fox News is considered the ‘moral’ arbiter! Ridiculous as this sounds.
    Why? It examines ‘morals’ endlessly.

    Enough with the sermons on morality.
    Economic equality is about justice, democracy and survival of the middle class. Not ‘morality’.

  • Tom Martin

    This is not an issue of minimum wage it is an issue of constitutionality. The poor sister would probably oppose if the President was doing the same to get things enacted that went against her and Pope Francis will like contraceptives, abortions, euthanasia, etc. The President is opening the door in a way that it has never been open before to abuse and the destruction of balance between the 3 powers.

  • Larry

    This is only a constitutional issue to people who make ignorant knee jerk 10th amendment arguments. Federal workers are subject to administrative law, ie law produced by the Executive Branch. Executive Orders have always been a key way for a president to act on subjects they are not answerable to the other branches.

    You are being ridiculous.

  • Jon Trouten

    Thanks Larry. You beat me to it. 🙂

  • John

    I thought the government was not in the legislating morality business, or at least that’s what they say with other issues(like abortion). Just goes to show how hard it is to be morally neutral since the one with the power always gets to decide which morality to enforce.

  • Larry

    So you support grinding poverty and turning a blind eye to it?

    You are saying government can’t act with moral convictions?

    They should act immorally?

    “Legislating morality” to people who are make honest arguments means using the law to regulate personal behavior and extol blatantly sectarian ideas. Raising a minimum wage hardly qualifies.

  • John

    Come on. I said nothing here that indicates I support poverty. The exact opposite is true and I agree with both the decision and the moral argument in this issue. With an issue such as poverty, a moral argument usually does not raise too much opposition, but with other social and governmental issues such as abortion, the raising of a moral position tends to bring out more conflict over imposing one persons morals over another’s. My larger point was who has the moral authority and who gets to decide and enforce such morals? The government cannot escape the moral position because it has the power to enforce, so how and when does a government develop its moral base from which it must operate and what will it do in a pluralistic society when everyone has different morals? Even a governments morality comes from some basis, some history and some sense of right and wrong.

  • Larry

    Who said moral positions require an outside authority?
    The government certainly has no business acting as one. Neither does anyone else. But that does not mean it is incapable of making decisions which are moral.

    I hesitate attaching the term moral to anything done in government. Government acts according to interests, necessities and abilities. Morality almost never comes into play in such things. Once in a while those interests align to produce something which is good in of itself. Its rare, but not impossible. Sometimes doing the right thing and doing what is in your interests coincide.

  • John

    Playing the morality card brings added weight and purpose and supports his authority to make such a decision. When people appeal to a moral code, they are appealing to an authority presumably based on something, be that religion, history, tradition or just plain old personal opinion. I appreciate that governments act according to interests and necessities, but there will be issues and areas which will have a basis in values, morality and what is ‘good.’ Those types of decisions will be made by the people who make up the government based on some deeper underlying convictions and morals they hold as individuals. So, I am not opposed to a government using the word moral when they enact laws, but I am always a bit wary because the morals of those who make up our government change, and that creates conflict in society. Inevitably, those who do not hold to that same moral code or change accordingly will be labeled extremists, backwards, fundamentalists or worse. There is a lot of this going on right now, but that has probably always been the case in a society that is undergoing a lot of rapid change.

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