We Need a $15 Minimum Wage, Not Excuses

Dozens of congresspeople are pressing Vice President Kamala Harris to ignore the Senate parliamentarian and fulfill her $15 minimum wage promise. The Biden administration has no one to blame but themselves for inaction.

Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris deliver remarks on August 12, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Progressive House lawmakers are demanding Vice President Kamala Harris use her power as presiding officer of the Senate to immediately advance the $15 minimum wage that she has long said she supports.

“Eighty-one million people cast their ballots to elect you on a platform that called for a $15 minimum wage. We urge you to keep that promise,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Harris and President Joe Biden, pressing the White House to raise the wage for workers as part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan. “We must act now to prevent tens of millions of hardworking Americans from being underpaid any longer.”

The letter released Monday was signed by twenty-three Democrats, including Reps. Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush.

Raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour would increase the wages of thirty-two million workers, a majority of whom currently live below the poverty line.

“We believe that the bill the president signs must include the House-passed minimum wage legislation,” Khanna told the Daily Poster. “This is the moment to get this done, and it is within our control.”

The Senate Presiding Officer Is the Decider, Not the Parliamentarian

Last Thursday, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the body’s nonpartisan adviser on all procedural matters, issued an opinion advising Democrats that she believes the minimum wage increase is subject to a point of order, allowing it to be stripped out of a COVID-19 bill under the budget reconciliation process. Democrats are using that process so they can pass the legislation by a simple majority vote.

The parliamentarian’s advice is nonbinding. The presiding officer of the Senate is the ultimate decision-maker and can ignore the parliamentarian, as the Daily Poster previously reported and as indicated by a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. If the minimum wage is included in Democrats’ COVID-19 relief bill and Republicans raise a point of order to try to strip it out, the presiding officer can reject the point of order.

As vice president, Harris is the chamber’s presiding officer, though if she decides to avoid being present in the chamber, another Democratic senator can issue rulings on parliamentary questions. The CRS report notes that sixty votes are needed to overrule a presiding officer’s ruling, though Republican senators could try to change that long-standing rule with a simple majority vote.

Democrats also have another option to advance the minimum wage: they could follow Republican precedent and replace the parliamentarian with a different adviser with a different interpretation of the so-called Byrd Rule, a three-decade-old rule requiring measures in budget legislation be related to federal spending. A Congressional Budget Office report said the minimum wage is related to spending, but the parliamentarian ignored that report.

While Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin backed a minimum wage increase in 2014, they have said they oppose including a $15 minimum wage in the COVID-19 bill. It’s unclear whether they would vote to sink the entire relief package if Democrats include the measure and overrule the parliamentarian.

White House Is So Far Trying to Preemptively Surrender

President Biden campaigned on a promise to enact a $15 minimum wage and presented himself as the guy who knows “how to make government work,” but his White House has suggested it wants Democratic senators to accept the parliamentarian’s opinion and allow the minimum wage measure to be pulled out of the COVID-19 relief bill.

“The vice president’s not going to weigh in,” Biden National Economic Council director Brian Deese said Friday on CNBC. “The president and the vice president both respect the parliamentarian’s decision and the process.”

House Democrats included the minimum wage measure in the COVID-19 relief legislation they passed on Saturday.

The new letter from the House Democrats heightens the pressure on Harris, who has backed a $15 minimum wage for years.

Exactly one year ago today, Harris reiterated her support for the wage increase.

She is now letting White House aides speak for her on the issue, however. Harris, should she want to run for president, could be seen as the candidate who killed a major party priority while in the White House. Alternately, she could play a high-profile role in advancing the minimum wage increase.

The letter notes that Vice President Hubert Humphrey twice overruled the Senate parliamentarian, as did Vice President Walter Mondale. In 2001, Republicans fired the parliamentarian after he made two rulings that impeded their policy goals.

Days before the presidential election, Harris appeared in a virtual town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders and committed to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Biden and Harris both backed a $15 minimum wage during the Democratic primaries.

“The outdated and complex Byrd rule, rooted in restricting progress, must not be an impediment to improving people’s lives.” the House Democrats said in their letter. “You have the authority to deliver a raise for millions of Americans.”