05/27/2015 09:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

$15 Minimum Wage in LA Is Great. But It Was Only Necessary Because a Democratic Congress Blew It


Before she was the tart-tongued grande dame on Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith was the tartan-clad elder stateswoman of Hogwarts. In the sixth Potter film, after Harry saved his friend Ron Weasley from poisoning, Smith's Professor McGonagall quipped: "I think we all agree that Mr. Potter's actions were heroic. The question is: Why were they necessary?"

As great a triumph as was the passage of a minimum wage hike in Los Angeles -- one that will raise the floor to $15 an hour by 2020 and index it to inflation going forward -- reading about it brought to mind the aforementioned quotation. The city-by-city, state-by-state struggle to raise the minimum wage has undoubtedly been heroic. Los Angeles -- because of the sheer size of its population -- is its most impressive and important achievement to date, although certainly not its only one. But why, indeed, has that struggle been necessary?

It has been necessary, first and foremost, because national Democrats failed low-wage workers on the issue in 2009 and 2010. Yes, this country increased the federal minimum wage in 2007, when a Congress with Democratic majorities passed the first such increase in 10 years. And the raise was -- from a percentage standpoint -- impressive, going up 40 percent, from $5.15 to $7.25, over 26 months. With a Republican president, that may have been as much as was possible at that time. Maybe.

But then Barack Obama became president of the United States, and Democrats increased their majorities in the House and Senate to the point that, once Al Franken's recount finally came to an end and he took his seat, the Senate Democratic caucus counted 60 members -- enough to overcome a Republican filibuster. Franken took his seat, in fact, less than a month before the third and final wage increase mandated in 2007 took effect. Why, we can ask, did the Democratic Party -- the party of working people -- fail to take further action?

Just to talk data for a moment, even the increases mandated by the 2007 law left the inflation-adjusted minimum wage a good 50 percent below its 1968 peak. And raising the minimum wage wouldn't just help teenagers -- despite Republicans like Rep. Tom McClintock of California continuing to peddle that myth -- as about half of people earning the minimum wage are older than 24, and three-quarters are older than 19. McClintock also claimed that raising the minimum wage would hurt minorities in particular, but 77 percent of those earning the minimum wage in 2013 were white, significantly higher than the percentage of whites in the working age population.

Finally, it's important to note that a recent review of the huge number of studies conducted by economists found: "the weight of that evidence points to little or no employment response to modest increases in the minimum wage." In other words, relatively small, gradual raises to the minimum wage of the kind being passed across the country do not cost jobs. In fact, states that hiked the minimum wage on January 1, 2014 saw greater job growth over the next six months than those that didn't. That's another fact about raising the minimum wage Republicans like to ignore, but it remains true nonetheless.

But if the Republicans were lying, it's also true the Democrats in Washington, D.C. were lying low on this issue throughout 2009 and 2010. Why didn't they pass another federal minimum wage increase? Why didn't they push it up to the $10.10 an hour they started talking about after losing the House in the 2010 midterms, or to the $12 an hour they've come around to more recently? And why, in the name of Merlin's most baggy Y Fronts, didn't they index it to inflation (or, even better, to worker productivity or wage growth?) so that we wouldn't have to keep coming back to the issue every few years?

Although I'm loathe to quote Ralph Nader, even fifteen years later, he was right when he asked where President Obama was on the minimum wage in those crucial first couple of years after he took office. After all, Senator Obama promised, if elected president, to raise the wage floor to $9.50 an hour by 2011, and to index it to inflation. As he said on the campaign trail in 2008, "if you work in this country, you should not be poor."

I don't want to denigrate the record of achievement that President Obama and congressional Democrats rang up in the first two years of his presidency. As I've argued elsewhere, Obamacare is the single most important piece of domestic legislation enacted since the Great Society. Additionally, the changes to the federal tax code he signed into law have made it significantly more progressive than it had been when he took office (admittedly, a low bar to clear), and, when one includes the Obamacare subsidies -- funded by taxes on the wealthy -- perhaps even more progressive than at any point since the 1980s.

Nevertheless, those two years offered an opportunity to do more. The minimum wage certainly isn't the only issue on which Democrats failed to act in 2009-10 -- immigration reform, cap and trade, card check for those seeking to unionize, and plenty of others come to mind. On these other issues, there were at least discussions, if not full-blown efforts to pass legislation. On the minimum wage, however, as Nader put it, there wasn't even "a whisper."

It's not as if Democrats believed they had solved the minimum wage issue with the 2007 law. Candidate Obama's promise to take action makes that clear. What's so frustrating is that if national Democrats had passed a real minimum wage, a living wage, in 2010 and indexed it to inflation, they could not only have significantly improved the lives of working people, they could have perhaps motivated more voters to come to the polls that fall.

Maybe they could have held their majority in the House. Maybe they could have prevented or at least lessened the degree of the Republican landslide at the state level, a landslide that allowed GOP to gerrymander congressional districts -- cementing their House majority at least through 2020 -- as well as state legislative districts across the country. And such victories would have given them the opportunity to continue to help working people. That, after all, ought to be the object of winning elections in the first place.

It's great that the White House and congressional Democrats are out there now calling for $12 an hour. That would put us just above the average among OECD countries (i.e., relatively wealthy, industrialized economies). Where are we right now? We're 27th out of 29, just ahead of Mexico. The $15 an hour passed by L.A. would put us into the top five. On the other hand, as Elizabeth Warren -- not in Congress during 2009 and 2010 -- pointed out, if the minimum wage had kept pace with increasing worker productivity it would be $22 an hour.

Kudos to the 29 states -- as well as Washington, D.C. and cities like L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, et. al., -- whose minimum wage stands above the federal level, and to the nine states where the wage rises along with inflation. The fact that a majority of Americans live in states that have a higher minimum wage -- including four red states that passed increases by referendum in the Republican year of 2014 -- makes clear that the issue is a winner with voters.

Who knows what national Democrats were thinking in 2009 and 2010. Were they thinking that they'd rather keep the issue alive for future campaigns than solve it permanently and see it taken it off the table? Were they just distracted by other -- albeit important -- matters, like health care reform and rescuing the economy? I'm no mind reader, so I can't say with any accuracy. What I can say is that national Democrats failed to get out in front of the issue of a living wage when they had the chance. They missed a perfect opportunity to materially help working Americans, to show them which party not only fights for them, but delivers for them.