Bernie Sanders is absolutely right to insist we should ignore the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling against a minimum wage increase. Reducing poverty is far more important than adhering to fusty, old Senate rules.
If you’re a home health aide, you spend your days making sure sick and elderly people are taking their medicines; you help them bathe and get dressed and exercise; you probably change their sheets and help them use the bathroom. In the coronavirus lockdown, there is a good chance you are one of the only human beings they see.
And yet, if you’re earning the average wage in your profession, you make about $12 an hour before taxes. If you live in, say, Ohio and make the average wage, you earn less than $11.
Perhaps on the way to work, you hear on the radio that someone known as the “Senate parliamentarian” decided that the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour could not go into the economic stimulus bill Congress is considering. For reasons even few political junkies actually understand, the parliamentarian has just stopped you from getting a 25 percent raise, a promise Joe Biden and Democrats all over the country campaigned on. In fact, the parliamentarian prevented thirty million workers from getting a raise, roughly 19 percent of US workers who earn under $15 an hour.
Since you are a reasonable person, you might assume the Democrats would simply overrule the parliamentarian and keep their campaign promise. After all, for the first time in a decade, they control both houses of Congress and the White House, in large part based on the idea they would make things better for people like you. Would you be right in your assumption?
The short answer is probably not. While 59 percent of Americans favor raising the minimum wage and 40 percent told pollsters they would personally benefit, senior Democrats like White House chief of staff Ron Klain have said they don’t expect Kamala Harris, who serves as president of the Senate, to overrule the parliamentarian.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is insisting that the Senate should simply ignore the ruling. He has promised to force a vote on the $15 minimum wage this week. “My personal view is that the idea that we have a Senate staffer, a high-ranking staffer, deciding whether 30 million Americans get a pay raise or not is nonsensical. [Elected officials] have got to make that decision, not a staffer who’s unelected,” Sanders said on Monday.
Bernie is right. While $15 an hour still isn’t really enough to live on, it would more than double the current minimum wage. Even so-called deficit hawks, who oppose greater government spending on principle, should be behind a minimum wage hike. Raising the minimum wage gives money to desperately hurting people without costing the government anything.
Beyond cruelly denying relief to some of the most exploited workers in the country, letting a minimum wage increase flounder is a gift to the Right. The last president to sign a minimum wage increase into law was George W. Bush. For the duration of Barack Obama’s presidency, the value of the minimum wage plummeted, when adjusted for inflation. (It spiked briefly during Obama’s first year in office, but this was due to legislation Bush had previously signed.)
The point here is not that Republicans care a great deal about helping minimum wage workers — they don’t. The point is that Democrats have done very little to show that they care, either.
It’s a well-practiced routine for the Dems by now: first, claim popular programs that would help lots of people are too expensive or impractical. Years later, eventually cave in, promising to enact them. Then, rather than following through when elected, find all kinds of excuses to avoid it, demoralizing your strongest supporters and appearing dishonest to average voters. Finally, insult and patronize your base just enough to eke out another election victory, if you’re lucky. It’s a path to ensure that no matter who holds office, “nothing will fundamentally change.”
The Senate parliamentarian’s ruling suits this dynamic perfectly. It allows some of the most powerful people in the world to claim their hands are tied and that there’s nothing they can do to fulfill the promises they made to tens of millions of people. And it lets them present themselves as virtuous in the process, claiming they’re just following the rules. Forget that they made the rules themselves, and they can change them whenever they want, as Bernie has made clear.
But with the minimum wage close to an all-time low in terms of purchasing power and massive health and economic crises rocking the country, the time for Democratic elites’ cynicism is over. It’s time for Senate Democrats to follow Bernie’s lead and overrule the parliamentarian. Too many people have waited for too long for a raise, and now the bill is due.
This post was originally published on Jacobin.