The Gateway Unpacks: What stands in the way of a $15 minimum wage?


Anton Johnson
The Gateway Unpacks is a column that seeks to make political news, both local and national, accessible to anybody.

The “Fight for $15” will have to continue as Democrats face a setback. Photo by Anton Johnson/The Gateway.

The Democrats have had control of the House, Senate and presidency for just over a month now, and they’ve already faced major hurdles in passing their legislative agenda.

One of the party’s biggest goals of the last four years has been raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which polling shows would be very popular. A large majority of voters in Florida voted to raise their own minimum wage to $15 by 2026.

To kill two birds with one stone, congressional Democrats attempted to include a minimum wage increase in the proposed Covid relief package. But Thursday evening, that plan was stopped dead in its tracks. What happened?

The Fight for $15

Congress passed the Fair Minimum Wage Act in 2007 to gradually raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 by 2009. It has stayed the same since then, but 29 states and Washington D.C. have set higher minimum wages.

In 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced legislation to raise the minimum to $15 an hour by 2020. Sanders made the ‘Fight for $15’ a prominent part of his 2016 presidential campaign. Although he lost the primary to Sen. Hillary Clinton, who supported a smaller increase, the $15 minimum wage became an official part of the Democratic party’s platform.

Days after President Biden’s inauguration, congressional Democrats reintroduced a 2019 bill that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. The bill would also raise the wage for tipped workers and disabled workers to the same number.

Despite the support of the president, the House, and a majority of Americans, it isn’t likely to get past the Senate thanks to the filibuster.

How to get past the filibuster

Technically, bills only need a simple majority to be approved by the Senate, with the Vice President breaking any ties. Since the Senate is split 50-50, and Democrats control the White House, the party should be able to pass their agenda. However, the filibuster prevents them from doing so.

Senators can prevent a bill from being brought to a vote by continuing debate. The Senate can vote to end debate, but they need 60 votes to do so. Polarization and the simple threat of filibustering has resulted in legislation effectively requiring 60 votes to pass.

There are, however, ways around it. Certain types of legislation have limits on time allowed for debate. Reconciliation is a procedure used to pass budget-related legislation. It was created in 1974, and only allows 24 hours of debate before a vote is held. It can only be used once a year when the president submits a budget to Congress.

Senate Democrats will use reconciliation to pass the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, which includes stimulus checks and funding for vaccines. The bill was passed in the House with the minimum wage increase attached, but the Senate parliamentarian ruled against allowing it in the final bill.

Why does she get to decide?

The Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, is an unelected, nonpartisan official who interprets Senate rules. The Byrd Rule prohibits provisions that don’t directly impact the budget from being passed through reconciliation. The parliamentarian only advises the Senate; the vice president makes the final decision as presiding officer.

In 2017, MacDonough decided against some of the provisions of the Republican healthcare bill. Sen. Ted Cruz suggested then-Vice President Mike Pence could overrule the parliamentarian, allowing Republicans to include anything Pence approves of.

Some Democrats are now calling on Harris to do the same, although she’s not likely to do so. Neither Pence nor any other vice president since 1975 has overruled the parliamentarian. The move would subvert Senate norms, and the wage increase might not reach a simple majority anyway.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have both said they wouldn’t support the increase. No Republican senators have supported it, leaving Democrats with only 48 votes.

Bernie’s back pocket?

Costco announced Thursday it would raise its starting rate for hourly workers to $16 an hour. Other major retailers, like Amazon and Target, have raised their own minimum rates to $15 an hour in recent years.

Sen. Sanders said in a statement he would work with colleagues on an amendment that would “take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages.”

Other corporations like Walmart might then choose to raise their own wages like Costco did. Sometime before March 14, we’ll find out whether or not this plan can make it past the parliamentarian or Manchin and Sinema.