Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Minimum Wage and Congressional Character

Democrats have been in control of Congress for three weeks and inter-party relations have not been good. In the House Democrats have moved swiftly to pass a number of bills (minimum wage, new ethic and lobbying rules, etc.) that Republicans assert they had little say in. Despite the Democrats’ promise to include representatives from the minority party in the debate, Republicans claim they have been overlooked. Unfortunately for them, this argument is feeble because for the past twelve years they treated House Democrats like uninvited guests.

Debate in the Senate has taken a somewhat unpredicted course. In the Times article, the journalist writes that “the House long has earned a reputation for being far more partisan than the Senate. In the Senate, the minority's power to stall legislation requires the majority to reach out if it wants to pass bills.” The Democrats have, in fact, extended the olive branch to the minority Republicans in the form of allowing them to propose amendments to bills before voting on them.

The Senate spent all last week and part of this week debating a bill that would increase the minimum wage because of endless tax-break amendments that have been proposed by the minority party. The Democrats have proposed none and have been ready to vote since the first day of debate. So in the chamber of Congress in which the majority party has the ability to prevent the minority party from creating blockages (not including the filibuster), a weeklong delay has occurred.

Democratic frustration over this holdup is obvious in Senator Ted Kennedy’s speech on Thursday in which he openly rebuked Republicans for purposely blocking a vote on the minimum wage increase.

There are three interesting aspects of this debate. First and foremost, this is not a controversy over whether to raise the minimum wage by a couple of dollars. This is a controversy between people who believe we should have a living wage for the poorest in society and people who don’t believe we should have a minimum wage at all. There have not been movements made by Republicans to raise it only to $6.15. Republicans, in general, do not want a minimum wage and will fight its increase accordingly. If Republicans don’t want a minimum wage, why didn’t they dispense with it when they were in power? Simply because it would have been enormously politically unpopular. Don’t fool yourself: Republicans are not concerned about the two buck increase - they are disturbed by the existence of the minimum wage.

Secondly, given the way that Republicans treated Democrats in the House and Senate for the last twelve years, the Democrats have absolutely no responsibility to afford the Republicans the ability to block or delay their legislation. Despite this, the Democrats have decided to make a tenuous attempt at bipartisanship in the Senate. Given the abusive response of the Republicans in the Senate, I cannot imagine that they will always have the opportunity to do this. The Democrats were only able to get the vote to close debate by accepting some tax breaks for small businesses. In the future, Republicans may not have such sway.

Third, and most generally, this issue illuminates the current character of Congress. How does a governing body govern itself? They can change the rules of debate whenever they choose and can easily minimize the effects of the minority party. It is impossible to regulate how much say the minority party gets, because the majority could always change it. The trend in the last couple of decades has been one of bickering and resentment. Both parties are guilty of “tyranny of the majority.” For our nation, this is not a good trend. Instead of reasoned and balanced legislation that actually represents the political diversity of the public, we get superficial, short-sighted, and selfish laws implemented when one party is in power, and then enormous swings in public policy when the other comes to power. In general, these laws fail to address the true causes of the myriad problems that hinder Americans. The net effect is a political atmosphere of contrarianism, attacks, and the illusion of progress that have characterized American politics for several decades.

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