Politics & Policy

Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act

(Photo: EmeraldUmbrellaStudio/Dreamstime)
The 1931 law makes building more expensive.

“You really ought to give Iowa a try.

Provided you are contrary.”

– “Iowa Stubborn,” from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man

‘Contrary” does not quite capture Steve King’s astringency. The Iowa native and conservative congressman was born, appropriately, in Storm Lake, and carries turbulence with him. He also carries experience of actual life before politics, when he founded a construction company, which is one reason he has long advocated an excellent idea — repeal of the Davis-Bacon law.

King came to Congress in 2003 and has been stubbornly submitting repeal legislation since 2005. He would not have succeeded even if he were less of a prickly cactus and more of a shrinking violet. Davis-Bacon is just another piece of government that is as indefensible as it is indestructible.

It is too secure to require defending because it benefits a muscular faction. Repeal would, however, reduce the cost of new infrastructure by many billions of dollars. And today, when social hygienists are cleansing the public square of names and statues tainted by historical connections with racism, Davis-Bacon’s durability is proof that a measure’s racist pedigree will be forgiven if the measure serves a progressive agenda.

Davis-Bacon was enacted in 1931 to require construction contractors to pay “prevailing wages” on federal projects. Generally, this means paying union wage scales. It was enacted as domestic protectionism, largely to protect organized labor from competition by African-Americans who often were excluded from union membership but who were successfully competing for jobs by being willing to work for lower wages.

In 1927, Representative 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.

By 1931, the Depression had made government construction money especially coveted and Davis-Bacon passed with the support of the American Federation of Labor. The congressional debate that preceded enactment was replete with references to “unattached migratory workmen,” “itinerant labor,” “cheap, imported labor,” “cheap bootleg labor,” and “labor lured from distant places” for “competition with white labor throughout the country.”

Passage of Davis-Bacon brought out the drollery in Representative William Upshaw, a Georgia Democrat. He said he hoped his Northern colleagues in Congress would permit a Southerner to smile about “your reaction to that real problem you are confronted with in any community with a superabundance or large aggregation of Negro labor.”

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.

In 1993, with Congress stoutly opposed to taking anything from something as powerful as organized labor, opponents of Davis-Bacon turned to the judiciary. A lawsuit on behalf of some minority contractors challenged the law’s constitutionality, arguing that it burdened the exercise of a fundamental civil right — the right to earn a living. And that it had a disparate impact on minority workers and small minority-owned construction businesses. The suit languished in court for almost a decade before the plaintiffs lost, victims of excessive judicial deference to the legislature.

Davis-Bacon is rent-seeking, the use of political power to supplant the market as the allocator of opportunity and wealth.

In 1992, to expedite cleanup after Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki, President George H.W. Bush suspended portions of Davis-Bacon in South Florida, coastal Louisiana, and Hawaii. Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, promptly reversed Bush’s policy.

A 2011 Heritage Foundation study estimated that Davis-Bacon would add almost $11 billion to that year’s construction costs. That sum will be eclipsed when — if — bold talk about making America’s infrastructure great again is translated into spending. Then we build up the national debt while purchasing less infrastructure than the appropriated sums should purchase.

Davis-Bacon is rent-seeking, the use of political power to supplant the market as the allocator of opportunity and wealth. Rent-seeking is lucrative, which is why there is so much of it, even when its pedigree is repulsive.


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George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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