Moderate Democrats Should Abandon Progressives and Support Romney on Minimum Wage | Opinion

On April 7, 2017, former President Donald Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat Airbase in Syria. On February 26, 2021, President Joe Biden took military action for the first time since assuming office, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border in Syria. You know how the saying goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But it's not just on the military front. The economic populism that swept through the nation in recent years, disrupting decades of laissez faire consensus, also appears to be on the wane. Despite his party's momentum pushing for a federal $15 minimum wage, the president privately told mayors and governors that he doesn't expect it to materialize anytime soon—in other words, it is more or less a political prop. And Americans are still waiting for Biden's stimulus, which is now tied to cuts to programs like Medicare and farm subsidies—mirroring the Trump administration's plan to provide payments in exchange for cuts to Social Security benefits. Indeed, Biden's about-face on economic populism is reminiscent of nothing so much as Trump's abandoned infrastructure plan, his most popular and populist policy by far, which took a backseat to tax cuts within the first year of his first term. Plus ça change, in other words.

But there's an opportunity to buck this trend and make a more incremental populist advance, if courageous lawmakers are willing to take it. It involves raising the minimum wage, an issue 60 percent of Americans support, though not to $15 an hour. In fact, the opposition to the $15 minimum wage began in the Democrats' own party, when West Virginia's Joe Manchin issued a counteroffer to Senator Bernie Sanders, proposing raising the floor to $11 per hour instead of $15. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona also voiced opposition to the $15 figure. "$11 is the right place to be," Manchin told reporters. "Throwing $15 out there right now just makes it very difficult in rural America." Sanders threatened to walk on talks, finding $11 too little. Then, on Thursday, the Senate parliamentarian told lawmakers that the proposed $15 increase to the minimum wage as part of the coronavirus relief package didn't comply with Senate rules.

Senator Mitt Romney
Sen. Mitt Romney attends the confirmation hearing for Vivek Murthy and Rachel Levine before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee February 25, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Caroline Brehman-Pool/Getty Images

But Democrats eager to make headway on this important issue shouldn't only look to their left. To the right, Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have already proposed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour over four years and require employers to avoid hiring illegal aliens with E-Verify. These policies in tandem would enhance the quality of life for millions of America's low-wage workers, simultaneously raising their wages and protecting them from competition with illegal labor.

And Romney and Cotton are not even the only Republicans in the game. Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley proposed his own three-year program, paid by taxpayers rather than employers, to raise worker wages. "Those making below $16.50 per hour would receive a refundable tax credit worth 50% of the difference, paid out in quarterly installments," Axios reported. The credit applies only to those with valid Social Security numbers for 40 hours or less of weekly work. "The bill is targeting folks who are making $34,000-$35,000 a year and less," Hawley said. "This is targeted toward people who have been the hardest hit, who are trying to get back on their feet."

Hawley also supports a $15 minimum wage for workers employed by corporations producing at least $1 billion in annual revenue. Given that 67 percent of Americans support raising taxes on those earning over $400,000 a year, including 70 percent of independents and 45 percent of Republicans, a corporate minimum wage hike would likely be broadly popular.

In other words, for Democrats anxious to see movement on the minimum wage front, there are options other than acquiescing to their own progressive wing.

There are downsides to the increase in minimum wage. A Congressional Budget Office report found that a $15 minimum wage increase would cost 1.4 million to 2.7 million jobs. And yet, 17 million people making less than $15 an hour would see their income rise, along with another 10 million who would be making just above the minimum wage. The boost would also lift 900,000 people out of poverty by 2025 and reduce spending on programs like food stamps.

It is past time that our lawmakers begin to advocate for workers as much as small businesses in a nation where private-sector union membership remains in decline. Democrats wishing to be the party of the people will find there are Republicans already eager to take up that mantel. Not all Republicans, of course. Too many remain mired in opposition to unions and legislation that helps workers while claiming to be a "working-class party." On the other hand, if Bernie Sanders actually cared about workers, he would seek compromise rather than conflict.

There is much talk of political realignment these days. But both parties at large remain wedded to tired orthodoxies, bombing the same places in the Middle East while everything from infrastructure to healthcare crumbles here. A few imperfect lawmakers coming together in earnest to offer Americans a hand might change that, or at least scare the keepers of the old consensus into opening their eyes and seeing that a system as unresponsive as ours can't last too much longer.

Pedro L. Gonzalez is assistant editor of American Greatness and a contributor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.