Incredibly, the federal minimum wage in the United States of America is stuck at $7.25/number, which is exactly where it’s been since 2009. Various think tanks and researchers have concluded that if it rose with inflation, it would already be more than $15/hour, which is the number currently being targeted by the more progressive members of Congress. It will come as no surprise that this has met fierce opposition from Republicans, and if you’ve paid attention to politics in the past 20 years, you’re probably also aware that not all Democrats support it either. However, the House successfully passed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill last week that included a massive minimum wage increase to $15/hour. Even better, they did so using the reconciliation process that meant the Senate could pass it with a 50/50 tie and the tiebreaking vote of Kamala Harris.
However, the U.S. Senate is a road block—it has been for literal centuries—and sure enough, the body once again found a way to stand in the way of progress. In a situation almost too absurd for words, the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, invoked the “Byrd Rule,” which “prohibits including “extraneous” measures as part of the budget process that Democrats are employing to send the Covid-19 relief package to Biden’s desk by early March,” per CNN. Her interpretation is that it’s not sufficiently budget-related to be included in the bill, and while MacDonough may be nonpartisan and may just be playing by the rules, it’s still true that one person’s interpretation stands in the way of about 32 million people having a better life.
Republicans like it, some centrist Democrats like it because it will make the relief bill easier to pass and it won’t put conservative Dems like Joe Manchin on the spot, and progressives are upset. Essentially, this means that there will be no way to raise the minimum wage while bypassing a Republican filibuster (another measure many Dems want to be rid of). Kamala Harris could overrule the parliamentarian’s decision, but it appears that she won’t take that route, since the Biden administration wants to pass the rest of the relief bill as soon as possible.
The easy thing for Democrats to now would be to throw their hands up, declare once again that the rules make it too difficult to do anything, and let another opportunity pass. Instead, Bernie Sanders has vowed to force a vote on the minimum wage and keep the issue in the public eye. More, he advocates for simply ignoring the parliamentary ruling:
“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. We have got to make that decision, not a staffer who’s unelected, so my own view is that we should ignore the rulings, the decision of the parliamentarian,” Sanders told reporters.
If at first glance this seems like a slippery slope, keep in mind that we’ve been careening down that slope for years and years, with every rule and twist in the Senate seemingly designed to benefit Republican policy. In the few places where this isn’t the case, Mitch McConnell has made a career of simply ignoring both rules and precedent in enacting his agenda. It has become abundantly clear that if Democrats and progressives are to pass anything they want, it’s going to have to come with the price of a few broken norms. This is the only way it happens in the year 2021, and if only one side is willing to break with the letter of the law, well, only one side is going to get anything done.
That’s not up to Sanders in this case—it’s up to Harris, who will decline to overrule, despite support in doing so from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer—but Sanders does have the power to make the Senate vote on a minimum wage bill. That’s exactly what he intends to do, as he made clear in a statement released Monday:
“This week, as part of the reconciliation bill, I will be offering an amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. At a time when millions of workers are earning starvation wages, when the minimum wage has not been raised by Congress since 2007 and stands at a pathetic $7.25 an hour, it is time to raise the minimum wage to a living wage.
This will be reminiscent, to some, of Jimmy Dore’s recent push to get House progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to hold Nancy Pelosi’s leadership hostage until she agreed to hold an up-and-down vote on Medicare For All. That campaign was more about holding Democrats accountable if they wouldn’t support a progressive policy, and hinged on the dual beliefs that wavering Democrats would vote honestly and that you could then exert political pressure on those who voted against. It was never meant to pass, just to be a kind of litmus test.
Whether that would have worked or not, it’s different than the current situation, in which there’s significant momentum behind a particular policy, and the House already managed to pass it. In this case, a straight up-and-down vote would get the job done, and the Democrats have the numbers. If some, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, oppose the wage increase, it’s important to get him on the record, because the obstacles at this exact moment are very few…and in fact, may be just the parliamentarian herself. So Sanders’s move has a dual purpose, which is to put his colleagues on the record and to push the idea that when it comes to rulings like MacDonough’s, the best path forward is to do it anyway.
In other words, when the energy is on your side, there’s no better move than to push ahead. That goes for ending the filibuster, too, which Elizabeth Warren correctly pointed out is the only reason any of the minimum wage legislation has to go through reconciliation in the first place. This is the Democrats’ time, and it’s the Democrats’ time because it has to be their time. If they can’t accomplish something like the $15 minimum wage by the time the next midterms hit, the nightmare cycle will repeat itself; big victories for Republicans in the midterms, and another agonizingly close presidential election, possibly against Trump himself. The situation is too critical today to allow that process to play out again, and to avoid it, immediate and decisive action is necessary. Bernie Sanders knows that, and if the rest of his party doesn’t get on board, we’re doomed to the status quo that laid us so low in the first place.