Wait, What’s the Real Story of the Democrats and Minimum Wage?

In his monumental book, Capitalism in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty reminds us that the minimum wage plays a key role in the formation and evolution of wage inequalities. Raising the minimum wage helps protect workers from exploitation and the gross imbalances that are threatening our society. It’s good for America, and the vast majority of citizens want it. But “we” just can’t seem to get it done.

As you’ve likely heard, President Obama’s proposal to phase in a $10.10-per-hour minimum wage dropped dead in the Senate last week. Not that a measly raise to $10.10 by 2016 was any great shakes for workers. But even that was too much for Washington.

The official story of the Democrats is that they supported the minimum wage increase, but the baddie Republicans blocked it. Dems and the Prez have been waxing indignant at their opponents ever since.

But what went down last week may be more complicated than the Dems are making it sound. What happened is that the measure failed to get the 60 votes needed to open debate. Fifty-four senators voted in favor, and 42 opposed it. Let’s take a closer look:

  • 51 Democrats, 1 Republican and 2 independents voted yes.
  • 1 Democrat and 41 Republicans voted no.

So who was the Democrat who voted no? That would be Harry Reid of Nevada, otherwise known as the U.S. Senate Majority Leader. But, believe it or not, this is actually due to a bizarre procedural convention and not evidence that he did not want the measure (gotta love Washington logic). 

What’s more interesting is that not all Democrats voted in favor. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas failed to appear for the vote. Why did the Majority Leader allow Pryor to check out of this one, when the measure was deemed so important to the Party and when Pryor represents a relatively poor state? Could have been because Reid figured it wasn't going to happen, and since Pryor is in a tough reelection race, it would be better to let him off the hook. But with whom? The voters of Arkansas? Or someone else? More on this shortly...

In Washington’s kabuki theater, making a popular proposal that your enemy will fight tooth-and-nail is money in the bank when there’s an election on the horizon. You get to take all the credit and leave your enemy looking terrible. You get to do that whether or not you were all that enthusiastic about the proposal yourself.

After the measure failed, the GOP certainly played to stereotype, with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, calling the idea “bankrupt.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., scoffed that the plan on minimum wage was "drafted by [Democratic] campaign staffers" for the express purpose of exciting the base.

Was he onto something?

The base, of course, is not the only constituency that matters in today’s political theater. Even more important are well-heeled donors. Now, according to a recent poll, wealthy people are less likely to favor increasing the minimum wage. And as political scientist Ben Page and his fellow researchers have shown, wealthy people tend to have a much bigger influence on policy than, say, a member of the base. Or the average voter of Arkansas, or anywhere else.

According to Page’s research, even when the public overwhelmingly supports a particular item, as it does on raising the minimum wage (76 percent favor raising it to at least $9, according to a recent Gallup poll), if wealthy people are less enthused, the policy is very often a non-starter. The Gallup poll showed that the vast majority of rich Republicans don’t want the minimum wage increased. Most of the Democratic elites did, but not all. Eight percent of rich Democrats said they would oppose a raise to a paltry $9 with increases tied to inflation. Seven percent would oppose that tiny raise even if it wasn’t tied to inflation. That’s not a big chunk of rich Dems, but it’s not negligible, either. A whole lot of independents don't want it, either — nearly a quarter. Remember, Democratic politicians are just as eager to get their mitts on the money of wealthy independents as they are fellow Democrats.

You can bet there’s some wealthy folks down in Arkansas, home of Walmart, who don’t want the minimum wage raised. Does that explain Pryor’s no-show?

Mark Warner, D-VA, has apparently had a great struggle in his soul over the issue of raising the minimum wage, and has reportedly been doing a little two-step dance with Virginians, telling them he’s for it, but not really. Now he can blame Republicans for blocking it to some constituents, and maybe give a wink-wink-we-knew-this-would-never-go-down to others.

Just conjecture, mind you. Observers close to the scene add a cautionary note: some Democratic senators who privately opposed raising the minimum wage cast a vote in favor, knowing the measure was doomed and would therefore be good theater.

Right now, 1.5 million Americans are stuck making $7.25, which means a yearly salary of $15,080, just above the poverty line. Another vote on the proposal is possible, but it could be that in reality, Obama and Democrats are more focused on November's congressional elections than on America’s most vulnerable workers.

In January, Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen pointed out how the Democratic establishment was warming to “populist” candidates, while being remarkably reticent about measures that would really reverse the ongoing trends making for increasing inequality. The next few months will tell the tale, because presidents can not only use their “bully pulpit” to influence public opinion but also have vast powers of patronage and favors available to sway legislators. And as Ferguson said recently, “despite the intense partisanship in the Senate, if there’s anything we know about U.S. senators, it is that many are for sale.”

Fortunately, on the matter of minimum wage, states and cities are doing what can’t seem to get done at the federal level, and grassroots activism remains energetic.

The Dems need to be pushed on getting the real work done, and hard. It's hard to talk over the din of money.


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