It's nothing short of a miracle: The fact that, after three years of lurching from one fiscal crisis to another, a badly divided Congress, in the waning days of 2013, was able to come together and agree on a budget with strong bipartisan support. True, in terms of substance, it wasn't much of a deal. But the fact that, given all we've been through, they were able to reach any deal at all was itself a big deal.
That agreement was only struck, of course, because Speaker John Boehner – in even more of a miracle – finally summoned enough nerve to stand up to the minority tea-party members of his own caucus. Not only that, he defied those extremist, anti-any-deal-Obama-would-sign know-nothings – and politically survived! Suddenly, congressional watchers – from President Obama on down – felt a flutter of hope in their hearts. If Congress, with Boehner's new-found courage, could reach a budget deal in 2013, just imagine all the other unresolved issues they might be able to agree on in 2014. In a flight of optimism before leaving for Hawaii, President Obama told us White House reporters that he even predicted that 2014 would be a "breakthrough" year.
We'll find out soon enough, when Congress meets its first real test after returning to town next week: legislation to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 per hour since 2009, under legislation signed by President George W. Bush. The fact that almost 28 million American workers still struggle with a full-time job paying only $7.25 an hour is a national disgrace. At that rate, they take home only $15,080 per year, well below the federal poverty level of $23,550 for a family of four.
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Nobody can support a family at that level, and everybody knows it. Thirteen states raised their minimum wage as of Jan. 1, making a total of 21 states now paying more than the federal minimum. As many as 11 states and the District of Columbia are expected to follow in 2014, according to the National Employment Law Project. In November, Gallup found that more than three-quarters of Americans support an increase in the minimum wage, including 70 percent of moderates, 64 percent of independents and 57 percent of Republicans.
Building on that support, President Obama and congressional Democrats propose raising the minimum wage to $10.10, or $21,000 per year, by 2016 and, for the first time, get the minimum wage out of partisan politics by indexing it to inflation in the future. That's still too low, of course. A minimum wage of $15,000, or $31,200 a year, would make more sense. But even that modest advance to $10.10 is opposed by House Republicans, every one of whom voted in March against a measure to raise the minimum wage after dragging out the long-discredited myth that any increase in the minimum wage is bad for the economy. "When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it," said Speaker John Boehner.
On this issue, the vast majority of economists agree, Boehner and House Republicans are dead wrong. Despite their Chicken-Little warnings, the minimum wage has been raised dozens of times over the years with no measurable loss in jobs or economic growth. This time around, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that raising the minimum wage to $10.10/hr. would add $35 billion in greater wages for 27.8 million workers through 2016, putting more money into pockets of consumers to stimulate the economy, and creating 85,000 new jobs.
An increase in the minimum wage is also one direct way to tackle the growing problem of income inequality, which newly installed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made the centerpiece of his campaign and which President Obama has called the "defining challenge" of our time. Indeed, it's harder and harder to defend not raising the minimum wage when you realize that, according to economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, 95 percent of income gains in this country since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent, while lower and middle-class wages have remained stagnant.
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We may, in fact, have the whole minimum wage argument backward. Consider. The AFL-CIO calculates the average worker wage at $19.77 per hour, while Mario J. Gabelli, founder of Gabelli Asset Management, makes $33,158 an hour and Charif Souki, CEO of Cheniere Energy, pockets $27,653 an hour. To tackle income inequality, what we really need in this country is not a minimum wage, but a maximum wage!