Minimum Wage Hike Going Nowhere, for Now

A bill to raise the minimum wage languished last week in Senate limbo while Democrats and Republicans debated their visions for America's changing economy. Ed Gordon talks with outspoken wage-hike advocate Rep. George Miller (D-CA).

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

A bill that would have raised the minimum wage languished last week in the Senate. Democrats have long pushed for a hike. It's been 10 years since the minimum wage was raised to its current level of $5.15 an hour. The House passed a wage hike, but only after Republicans added a repeal of the estate tax.

Senate Democrats cried foul and locked up both with a filibuster. I spoke with U.S. Congressman George Miller of California. He's the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. He accuses Republicans of playing dirty, even by Washington standards.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): We have the votes to pass a clean minimum wage bill. We've been waiting 10 years to pass that bill. The people working at the minimum wage have been working there for $5.15 an hour, and this was a real opportunity.

And then, of course, what happened was that the Republicans decided that they would marry this opportunity and this success with something that was much more controversial, and that was a dramatic cut in the estate tax for 8,000 of the wealthiest families in the country.

We told them that that would prevent the minimum wage from passing. They laughed it off and sent it off to the Senate, of course, where it was killed. And it's very frustrating, because we now don't know whether or not we'll be able to get a clean vote on the minimum wage this wage for the people who desperately need it.

GORDON: Yeah. What's your take on that? That's been the speculation that we won't see it come up for another vote cleanly, and that this will continue to languish.

Rep. MILLER: Well that was the intent of the - certainly the House Republican leadership. Neither the speaker nor the majority leader of the Republican Party endorse the minimum wage. They've opposed it their entire public life, and so this was really a gimmick to kill the minimum wage. They've succeeded in what they wanted to do.

Generally in the House, you're not able to put a lot of bills together on different subjects. But on this one, they put two different bills together that they knew would create maximum opposition to the legislation in the Senate, and they were successful. And it's just unfortunate.

GORDON: What do you tell the voter, the Joe Public who looks at Capitol Hill with a jaundice eye already, if you will - sees this as really hurting not only his pocketbook, but his wherewithal to sustain his life and his family's life?

Rep. MILLER: I don't know what to tell him, because we could've put a clean bill on the floor and received a very substantial bipartisan vote. There's clearly Republicans that want to vote for the minimum wage. We had all of the Democratic votes. But what they now do is they wave all of the rules of the House of Representatives so that they can marry up bills of different subject matters. If you'll remember back years ago, Ronald Reagan came out very strongly against this practice. And my constituents have raised it with me in the last couple of days, saying how can this happen? Well, it only happens because they wave all of the rules that are supposed to govern the House of Representatives, but it makes it very frustrating for the person - as you say - the person who's out there saying how am I going to support my family without this increase in the minimum wage? It's just got to drive them to incredible anger. Of course, my theory is you want to change the country, then you better change the Congress.

GORDON: Are you optimistic about what you and your party may, in fact, see midterm?

Rep. MILLER: I'm very optimistic about it. We're right where we want to be. We're here now with our program of a new direction - take us away from a very old, fossil fuel-tied energy policy to a new policy of technology in alternative fuels. We want to move away from a minimum wage that hasn't increased in 10 years and give people the increase that they need now. So this change in direction is really important to the nation, because the nation looks at both America's situation around the world and at home. And they clearly see that the country's going in the wrong direction, and they want to change that direction. So we believe that we're there on a whole range of subjects - on the environment, on healthcare, on energy, on the economics, minimum wage, and the fairness of our economic system - that we're there in sync with the American people.

GORDON: The average American has become, quite frankly, disenchanted with the body politic with what they see on Capitol Hill - particularly when it comes to the two committees that use it. And that is education and, obviously, the work force. What can be done to win back the trust of these folks?

Rep. MILLER: We have to demonstrate that we're working on their behalf. What we have seen is that Congress really has spent all of their energy taking care of a very narrow group of people in this country. They've taken care of the oil companies, they've taken care of the insurance companies, they've take care of the pharmaceutical companies, they've taken care of the wealthiest people in the nation.

For the other 90 percent of the people in this country, they're saying what about me? I'm confronted with higher energy prices. We have no energy policy. I'm confronted with higher healthcare. We have no healthcare policy. I'm confronted with higher college costs, and you're raising the cost of college with the increase in the interest rates.

So they don't see that the Congress is doing their business, and that's why they're very down on the body politic, if you will. They're very down on the president. They don't see him addressing the issues that they need to have addressed in their daily lives when they get up in the morning, they go to work, and they come home to take care of their families.

As the new secretary of treasury said, this economy isn't working for a significant number of the American population. A very significant number.

GORDON: All right. Congressman George Miller of California. Thank you for your time today.

Rep. MILLER: Thank you.

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