Beating a dead horse: The real reason leftists are apoplectic about having to drop the minimum wage from COVID legislation

Eric Fang - RoKhanna-TownHall-SunnyvaleCA-8.24.19-EricFang-33.jpg

Governing in a democratic society, even when a party has nominal legislative majorities, is messy, tough, grueling work, and Bernie Sanders is finding that out the hard way.

The Senate Parliamentarian said late last week that a minimum wage increase cannot be considered under the Senate's budget reconciliation rules that are being used to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. I have previously explained both why it was the correct application of the Senate's rules, as well as why ignoring the parliamentarian's application of the rule, as some leftists want, would be wrong, ineffective, and dangerous. Having failed to advance the minimum wage legislation in his role as the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Sanders proposed suspending tax breaks for large, profitable corporations who do not pay at least a $15 an hour wage to their lowest-paid workers. Sanders was joined by Sen. Ron Wyden, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in that effort, and it likely had a better chance of passing rules muster.

But that effort, too, has been abandoned now, in the interest of finishing work on the rest of the COVID legislation and getting it to President Biden's desk before the March 14 deadline for expiring unemployment benefits is reached.

The fact is, abandoning that effort - without abandoning the commitment to eventually increasing the minimum wage - was the right decision. Democrats in Congress are being forced to deal with a time crunch they did not cause. Republicans refused to raise the last direct-payment checks from $600 to $2000, or to confirm critical nominees for the Biden administration, or hold a trial for Donald Trump's second impeachment while they had the majority prior to the inauguration of Biden and Kamala Harris. Heck, they even temporarily refused sign onto the rules of the Senate once Democrats took the majority in a 50-50 senate with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris, delaying the takeover of the Committee chairmanships by Democrats for weeks.

Since Democrats finally took full control of the Senate, they have had to move with lightning speed to hold Trump's trial, hold hearings and confirm nominees, and work on COVID legislation. Writing a brand new provision on tax incentives for the minimum wage would have taken time, needed to satisfy every member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, and may well have run up against a different part of the reconciliation rules, requiring the process to start all over again. That posed the problem that trying to desperately find way to insert some version of minimum wage legislation in the COVID package would have delayed direct payment checks, left people in need of immediate unemployment, housing, and food assistance hanging at the mercy one agenda item.

The Senate leadership came to the conclusion, correctly, that it was more important to sacrifice one item and finish work on the broader assistance package, rather than making that broader package contingent on one item, no matter the merits of that agenda item.

This is called governing. When one has been given power - as Sanders has been as Chair of one of the most important committees - one has to think about achieving the best possible outcome, even if that outcome does not check all the boxes that one would like it to. In governing, making choices about what is possible and when is the job. If governing is an art, pragmatism is the toolbox.

But the alt-left isn't prepared to accept accept reality. Sanders's former national campaign co-chair Rep. Ro Khanna - joined by 21 of his colleagues in the House - has sent a letter to President Biden beating the dead horse, that is, demanding once again that the Vice President treat the United States Senate as her personal fiefdom, something the White House has already signaled it will not do.

The letter by Khanna et. al is more than a temper tantrum over an already-settled issue, however. It is an indication that the alt-left is having severe trouble accepting the basic underpinning of both governing and power: pragmatism. The alt-left has been arguing from outside for years that all that it takes to achieve everything they have ever wanted is an adequate amount of willpower to simply wish utopia into existence, that no compromise is ever truly needed, and that pragmatism is just another word for surrender.

The minimum wage increase was a test case for this idea. With things like single-payer health care moving farther and farther out of reach, leftists wanted to make an example of the minimum wage and establish the claim that yes, if you pound your fist for long enough, eventually you will get what you want without having to compromise.

They thought they were close, and now it's falling apart. The fact that Democrats may have to compromise both on the amount of the raise and the mechanism to implement in order to actually deliver on a minimum wage increase - any minimum wage increase - is hitting ideologues particularly hard.

The truth is that while the $15 minimum wage through budget reconciliation is now dead, the idea and movement for boosting the federal minimum wage is very much alive - but with a big BUT that ideologues cannot stand. If any form of minimum wage legislation is to pass the United States Senate, it will require compromise. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether that is compromise with conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin on the amount it is raised to - Manchin has proposed $11 - or one with moderates in both parties about linking the increase to employment verification - an idea that Republicans Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton have put forward - or figuring out how to use tax incentives to the satisfaction of enough senators.

The problem the leftists are having with the minimum wage fiasco caused by the titular head of their "movement" goes far beyond the simple issue of a $15 minimum wage. It goes well beyond the issue of the minimum wage itself. It is forcing them to face an identity crisis: if they accept that pragmatism is good, their entire worldview crumbles. If they don't, they are exposed for being less interested in progress than in a talking point.

To that end, on the one hand, it is troubling that Khanna and some others are continuing to make hay out of this. On the other hand, the fact that they failed to get even a quarter of the 94 members of Congressional Progressive Caucus to sign on despite the letter being led by the Caucus's whip and featuring some of its most well-known members is reason for hope for the progressive movement writ large.

Update: I noted in a previous version of this story that for the moment, Sanders himself appeared to understand the responsibilities of leadership and had not demanded the rules be ignored for his pet project. Clearly, I'd spoken too soon.

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