President Biden received a major political gift from an obscure, unelected official called the Senate parliamentarian. On Feb. 25, she ruled that the provision in the administration’s stimulus plan that raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour must be removed from the bill. Unless this maneuver is defeated, millions of workers who could have seen their incomes rise substantially will instead be condemned to ever-deepening poverty.
Even though a $15 minimum wage was part of the administration’s own bill and a promise made on the campaign trail, Biden’s public comments over the last several weeks made it clear that he was not actually in favor of its passage. While his team calculated that it was necessary to make a token gesture of support in an attempt to placate the people’s movements, actually implementing a minimum wage increase would be unacceptable to the big corporations that make up Biden’s true constituency, and to the Republican politicians with whom he so desperately wants to forge an alliance.
On Feb. 5, as the Senate parliamentarian was considering whether or not to allow the minimum wage provision to go forward, Biden went on CBS News saying, “I don’t think it is going to survive.” Biden said his “guess is it won’t be [included]” because of “the rules of the United States Senate.” The following week Biden held a meeting with governors and mayors at the White House. He disingenuously claimed, “I really want [a $15/hour minimum wage] in there” but then went on to say, “it just doesn’t look like we can do it … right now, we have to prepare for this not making it.”
What reason could Biden possibly have to say these things in front of the whole country? Would a defendant awaiting the verdict of a jury go on TV and say, “Oh they’ll probably find me guilty?” Of course not. Biden made these comments because he wanted to signal to corporate America, the right wing, and to Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough herself that he did not want it to go forward.
Why the Democrats have no excuse
In the wake of the parliamentarian’s decision, the messaging from the Biden administration is that they tried their best to get $15 an hour included in the stimulus bill, but are simply legally unable to because of the complex procedural rules of the Senate. Their arguments are crafted to take advantage of the obscure and arcane nature of the Senate’s operating procedures, which understandably are not known to most people. But a closer examination shows that this is just an excuse for Biden to do what he always intended: abandon the promises he made to the working class.
One key issue is the filibuster. One would assume that in a democratic institution, measures that receive majority support are passed. But not in the U.S. Senate. One of the chamber’s rules is that a motion to close debate on a matter must be passed with 60 out of 100 votes. Unless that happens, opponents of a bill can prevent its passage simply by keeping the debate going endlessly despite being in the minority. It effectively increases the threshold to pass laws from 50 percent plus one to a three-fifths majority.
The filibuster is a rule, not a law. At the beginning of each two-year sitting of Congress, the Republicans and Democrats negotiate the rules that will govern their deliberations. Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell agreed to keep the filibuster alive just a few weeks ago. Schumer has a majority in the chamber and could have simply said no. But that would have been too damaging to Biden’s efforts to forge “bipartisan” unity with the right wing.
That still leaves open the option of bypassing the filibuster using a maneuver called budget reconciliation. This allows measures to be passed with a 51-vote majority. This is how the Biden administration is seeking to pass their stimulus plan. But to be included in a bill passed through budget reconciliation, the provisions of the proposed law must be judged to not violate an even more obscure internal regulation called the “Byrd Rule.” This holds that measures in a bill passed in this fashion cannot be “extraneous” to the state of the country’s budget. It is named after its author Robert Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who went on to become the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history, dying in office in 2010 at the age of 92.
The “non-partisan” Senate parliamentarian is the official tasked with determining whether or not a provision runs afoul of the Byrd Rule. But her ruling is in fact just a recommendation! As Vice President Kamala Harris also holds the title of president of the Senate. The president of the Senate is the one who decides whether or not to accept the parliamentarian’s ruling.
Senate Parliamentarian MacDonough says that $15 an hour violates the rules, but Harris could simply say, “No it doesn’t.” She would have good reason to do so, considering the Congressional Budget Office released a report earlier this month showing the minimum wage does indeed have a major impact on the federal budget. The Democrats could then proceed as planned with budget reconciliation and raise the minimum wage without needing a single Republican vote in either chamber of Congress.
The fight for $15 can still succeed using the same tactics that allowed it to bring the demand into the political mainstream in the first place — organizing and mobilizing workers to wage class struggle. But the events of the last several weeks in Congress serve as a bitter reminder that the promises of Democratic Party politicians are worth nothing.