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Can Congress Redeem Itself?

Can Congress Redeem Itself?

In the latest polls for May and June, Congress’ approval rating is a mere 14%. This reflects a clear dissatisfaction with Congress not doing something meaningful to help American households. Highjacked by the Tea Party, the Republican-led House of Representatives does not want to use government to help people at a time America’s people need help digging out from policies that let Wall Street bankrupt the country.

Now Congress has been thrown the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, and it struggles with fixing a broken immigration system. But, as we celebrate the federal minimum wage law turning 75 this week, we should add to the list Congress’ duty to raise the minimum wage.

From the end of World War II to the late 1970s, Americans got used to a government that worked to lift the people, being on the side of balance and fairness and expanding opportunity. Compromise was reached on the speed and size of moving toward a country that celebrated equality. In 1949, under President Truman, House Republicans on the final House version of the amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act voted 138 to 13 to raise the minimum wage from $0.40 to $0.75 an hour. (Final action on the bill, out of conference, was a vote by division.) That was an 87.5% increase in the minimum wage, the largest percentage increase in the wage. In 1966, Republicans in the House voted 72 to 47 to increase the minimum wage from $1.25 to $1.60 (to take effect in 1968). That was an increase in the minimum wage of 28%, and in today's dollars took the value of the minimum wage to $10.71, its highest value on record. Today, the minimum wage stands at $7.25 an hour, about where it stood in 1991.

The median U.S. family income remains 9% below where it was in 2007. Yet Wall Street is back to celebrating record-high stock prices and corporate profits have recovered. So America’s workers and their families are uninvited to the party. Before we continue debating taxes, the first straightforward path is to raise the wages of U.S. workers so they take home more money.

There was a time Americans could count on Congress to see the fall in the value of the minimum wage and act to reduce the number of working poor people. If Congress acts on the proposal of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, the Economic Policy Institute estimates about 30 million workers would see a rise in pay. The vast majority of those workers are adults, close to 90%, and 70% are workers in families with incomes below the median family income. In almost 70 different occupations, half the workers make less than $10.10 an hour, including food preparation workers, child care workers, maids, hotel desk clerks, personal care aides and cashiers. So, not surprisingly, almost 56% of the workers who would get raises are women. Because the average affected worker earns about half of his or her family’s income, this means a boost to American family incomes. 

During the post-war boom, Republicans and Democrats understood the importance of federal labor standards to a vital middle-class America. A conservative is supposed to be someone opposed to change, who wants to maintain systems, customs and cultural norms. But in both 1972 and 1973, House Republicans voted against an increase in the minimum wage, signaling a switch into making the government’s compact with America’s workers a partisan issue; during the 1970s, House Republicans voted three times against raising the minimum wage. And in this regard, the Tea Party is a further radical departure, as this month such legislators voted against a farm bill that helps families meet their food needs, breaking with the long tradition of U.S. policy on supporting farmers and workers. But, it is beyond radical if you vote against the SNAP food program and against raising the wages of workers so they can be self-sufficient and afford to buy food. People expect Congress to represent them against the vagaries of failed economic policies.

In all, the Economic Policy Institute estimates family incomes would go up by a combined $51.5 billion, which means more revenue for the Social Security Trust Fund, fewer dollars for the Earned Income Tax Credit and fewer people getting food assistance. That is why this is so popular with the American public. The U.S. public believes work should pay, and workers should be able to sustain themselves. That is why 19 states plus the District of Columbia have local minimum wage laws above the federal minimum wage.

This year will be a true test of the direction of the Republican Party. With its control of the House of Representatives, will the GOP stand with moving America forward on fixing a broken immigration system, will it conserve an almost 50-year victory of democracy over the anti-democratic forces of silencing voters and fix the Voting Rights Act and will it stand with women and America’s families to give workers the pay raise they have earned and need? Will Republicans choose to be on the wrong side of so many U.S. voters? An honest assessment of that 14% approval rating ought to lead to rational decisions about these vital issues.

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