Mar 5, 2021 | OPINION | By Reed Schaefer | Illustration by Bibi Powers

President Joe Biden campaigned on two significant pieces of legislation to ease the financial burdens of suffering Americans: another (third) significant COVID stimulus package and a $15 minimum wage.

Even though Biden won the presidency, and the Democrats retained a majority in the House — and, with the Vice President’s vote, have a slim majority in the Senate — passing this legislation is proving difficult. What are the chances of passing both of these desperately needed pieces of legislation?   

As the Biden administration’s first major piece of budget legislation, it is important to make a strong first impression. Since it is believed that the stimulus packages during the Vice President Biden-era 2008-2009 economic recession were underwhelming, Biden has made it clear that he plans to pass a stimulus package that is bigger rather than smaller. The current package totals around $1.9 trillion. The first stimulus package last March was greater than $2 trillion, and December’s was a $900 billion package.

The bill contains similar measures to prior stimulus bills such as stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits to stimulate the economy. Biden and the Democrats have also added non-traditional components to this package, such as money to unlock parts of the economy that have been harmed (money for vaccines and testing, schools and childcare). 

The current stimulus package also contains several more contested provisions to address other ways of stimulating economic recovery which Democrats have sought for years. These provisions include a major expansion of tax credits meant to address child poverty (for a year) and increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. Progressives have been working to raise the minimum wage for decades, and Democrats argue that COVID-19 has exacerbated economic problems for working peoples. Thus, their goal is to make long-term structural changes to the economy.  

Unfortunately, though, in order to make structural changes while lives are on the line, we will need to rely on bipartisan cooperation, which has been slow and oxymoronic in the last few decades. Despite Biden’s promises to bring both parties together, the Senate in particular has been polarized on the stimulus package and minimum wage. This could be framed as bringing both sides to agreement on a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that is necessary for suffering Americans, but this is in opposition to Republicans, who often call the stimulus package a “liberal wish list.” 

The latest COVID-19 stimulus package, with the $15 minimum wage, passed through the House of Representatives last weekend. Passing through the Senate is much more difficult due to the body’s procedural complexities, especially the filibuster. To avoid a filibuster, legislation usually must pass through the Senate with 60 votes. With Republicans united against Democrats and the costliness of this package, there was little-to-no possibility that the bill would pass the Senate.  

To maximize the chances of getting the COVID stimulus package passed, the Democrats implemented the budget reconciliation process, which only requires a simple majority and cannot be filibustered. Assuming no Republicans vote for the bill, Democrats would still need to be united with their 50 votes, and Vice President Harris would cast the deciding vote. The catch is that the budget reconciliation process can only be used for bills that change spending, revenues, or the federal debt limit. 

Last week, the Senate Parliamentarian ruled that the minimum wage provisions are not appropriate for the reconciliation process and must be removed from the Senate COVID-19 stimulus bill. The Senate Parliamentarian is a nonpartisan person who determines all operational rules in the Senate, including those of budget reconciliation.

As a result, progressives and Democrats will have to try to increase the minimum wage in separate legislation. The stimulus package looks like it will pass in the Senate as soon as early next week, as Democratic approval for the package appears to be unanimous after the minimum wage provision was struck.

There is some hope, however, for increasing the minimum wage and other progressive economic reforms targeting poverty and income inequality, with progressive and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders selected as the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. 

Sanders, a long-time champion of raising the minimum wage, has proposed to impose a tax or reduce deductions for large companies that do not raise employee wages. He has also already promised to introduce a bill to the Senate which would add the minimum wage provisions back into the stimulus package and has called for Democrats to ignore the Senate parliamentarian ruling.  

I agree with Sanders that the idea of having a Senate staffer decide on this most-important legislative matter is scary, considering I did not know who the Senate Parliamentarian was before this weekend. I believe that increasing the federal minimum wage is necessary with or without the pandemic, even if it falls outside of the criteria for budget reconciliation. 

In addition, I believe it is necessary to pass the $1.9 trillion stimulus package as soon as possible. Therefore, I think Sanders is further delaying the passage of the stimulus legislation, like the Republicans, by introducing a bill to reintroduce the minimum wage to the coattails of the stimulus package. We are better off voting the stimulus package through the Senate and then focusing on increasing the minimum wage in a separate piece of legislation.

I imagine Sanders believes (perhaps rightfully so) that he will lose out on the minimum wage increase — at least up to $15 specifically — if the bill goes to a bipartisan vote rather than through this budget reconciliation process that does not require Republican approval. Nonetheless, the stimulus package is needed now!  

Sanders also recently challenged Senatorial procedure when he questioned the filibuster entirely, which essentially allows the minority to limit the majority from passing legislation. This fixture in the Senate, a symbol of its deliberative principles, allows Senators to endlessly debate on the floor until three-fifths (60) of them vote to reconvene and end the debate. As such, the filibuster does not make much sense to me apart from its distinction from the House’s operations. Perhaps it is not the filibuster that is the issue, but the rules and procedures around it that allow for abuses and the burden of cloture (a resolution/ending the filibuster) which requires 60 votes.  

While the $15 minimum wage may not pass right now, there is optimism that it will be pursued aggressively while Sanders is Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Sanders promises that even if his most recent bill to increase the minimum wage fails, he “will be back” and will continue to champion it no matter how many votes it takes to pass. 

While Republicans appear to be united against increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour (arguing it will cost jobs) specifically, some Republicans (including Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah) appear to be willing to support a smaller increase. 

Ernst told Insider magazine, “I’m pretty adamant about states and localities kind of determining what’s right for their own state … I do think it’s a discussion we need to have.” 

Having the open mind to sit down and discuss things like this is the attitude that will help us to tackle the real issues that plague our society. Cross your fingers and urge your representatives to stay on top of the minimum wage issue.

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