There’s a moment every four years when the polls are tight and certain Democrats shake their heads, marveling at the fact that so many Americans — particularly low-wage workers — still vote for the GOP. “Don’t they know we’re the working people’s party?” they say. “Republicans only care about giving tax cuts to the rich.” Next time you hear a variation on that theme, remember this moment, when Democrats had a majority in the Senate, the opportunity to raise the wage floor for millions of Americans and lift nearly a million workers out of poverty, and — faced with a minor road block — they threw their hands in the air and gave up.
On Thursday, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that a $15 dollar minimum wage could not be included in Democrats’ $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, because they intend to pass it through the budget reconciliation process, which only requires a simple majority, instead of trying to convince at least 10 Republicans to support the cause.
There was a bit of suspense in advance of MacDonough’s ruling, because, as my colleague Tim Dickinson explained, decisions like this one on the minimum wage are somewhat arbitrary: “reconciliation bills are subject to a thicket of arcane limitations… For each controversial provision, the Senate parliamentarian must find a path — as if with a divining rod — or announce, after a mysterious interlude of doleful contemplation, that the way is blocked. In this case, MacDonough found that the minimum wage hike was ‘merely incidental’ to the federal budget and therefore could not proceed.”
President Joe Biden’s press secretary said he was “disappointed” in the outcome, but he “respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process.” (Biden may having been breathing a sigh of relief though — MacDonough’s ruling offered cover to two Democratic senators who said they might not support the bill if it included the wage hike: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.)
Now, Democrats have to choose between respecting some arcane Senate semi-rules and ensuring more than a million working Americans would no longer literally go hungry, and they seem, somehow, poised to pick the former.
There are multiple options available to Biden if he is truly committed to the idea that, as he said in his statement on the ruling, “no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty.”
For one thing, the president could just ask Kamala Harris, the president of the Senate, to overrule the parliamentarian. In fact, one former parliamentarian has said it’s entirely at the VP’s discretion to listen to MacDonough on a ruling like this one or not. And there is ample historical precedent for not listening to the parliamentarian — as Slate reports, “Vice President Hubert Humphrey routinely ignored his parliamentarian’s advice.”
A coalition of groups — including the Women’s March, UltraViolet, CASA, and the Urban League — sent a letter to Biden Thursday, urging him to do exactly that. But Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain threw cold water on the idea earlier this week, saying the administration would “honor the rules of the Senate.”
The other option that’s available to Biden? He could ask Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to have the parliamentarian fired. That’s what the GOP-controlled Senate did back in 2001, when the parliamentarian ruled the Bush tax cut could not be passed through a reconciliation process in circumstances nearly identical to this one. And that might be the redeeming quality some working class voters see in the party — the GOP may be primarily concerned with cutting taxes for the wealthy, but at least, when they say they’re going to do something, they actually get the job done.