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Compromise on stimulus, minimum wage hike

Posted on February 22, 2021

OpinionColumnsLocal news

Ken Ripley

Ken Ripley

One of the casualties of the partisan warfare in Congress over the past 30 years or so is that good ideas, whether from Republicans or Democrats, too often get ignored. The COVID-19 relief bill now moving through Congress could benefit from at least a little bipartisanship on some key areas.

Political perceptions, as well as economic and pandemic realities, inevitably dominate negotiations in both the House and Senate, creating some things that are simply not negotiable. One is the targeted size of the bill — $1.9 trillion — which President Biden and most Democrats have been pushing as a need to “go big” in protecting Americans and the economy from COVID-19’s impact. 

Democrats have rejected Republican attempts to chop the proposed legislation to less than half the cost, with good reasons. The political reason is simple: the Democrats are keeping their campaign promises. Ironically, President Donald Trump cemented the higher figure in the public mind in the late stages of December’s COVID-19 legislation with his demand for $2,000 stimulus checks, to the consternation of his own party and to Democrats’ delight. But now, Democrats want to keep their word.

The economics are more serious. With the pandemic still raging and evolving, and while the vaccines are being administered with a long way to go, American families and businesses are still in dire straits. Schools are struggling to open. Unemployment is unacceptably high. State and local governments in many places are facing plummeting revenues and soaring expenses. Millions of households, unemployed and underemployed, can’t pay their bills. 

The various components of the COVID-19 relief bill are needed to give Americans a helping hand now, when they most need it. If the bill doesn’t “go big,” it won’t get the job done. Later will be too late. 

But, in my opinion, here is where some true give and take, not winner-take-all, might be useful. GOP knee-jerk opposition to “socialist Democrats” is simply political obstructionism, especially in the seditionist House, but some Republican voices in the Senate, such as Sen. Pat Toomey, have raised what I think are good points worth considering, and worth some compromises.

One is on the stimulus checks, which Biden has set at $1,400 to add to the $600 checks approved in December, adding up to $2,000 as promised. That’s already a compromise since progressive Democrats want bigger checks and Republicans, little or none. But what Toomey eloquently argued, as have many others, including Democrats, is that not every American needs the money. 

Sure, we might want it (who doesn’t?), but families that haven’t lost their incomes or remained financially well-off really don’t need the help, while lower-income families are truly hurting.

So, while the two checks’ $2,000 total might be politically necessary, why not sharply limit the eligibility of those who get the new checks to households making much less than the current $75,000 individual ($150,000 per couple) cap proposed, perhaps half that? Then, using the money saved, boost benefits even further for those who have no income or more needs. This way, more people will get more substantial help for the same cost.

Another point Toomey made that resonated with me is that the country is proposing to spend another $1.9 trillion on top of the $900 billion stimulus bill in December and the original bipartisan $2 trillion legislation last March without waiting for the previously approved funds to be spent. 

Fair enough; it doesn’t seem responsible to throw money into the economy faster than it can absorb. So, then, why can’t the new stimulus bill be crafted to authorize any additional spending on previously approved expenditures only after earlier funds are expended? 

Truly new spending not previously approved can move forward, but letting the money flow to where it is needed only as it is needed will spread the deficit out more cleanly and responsibly, and maybe even find savings if new money ends up unnecessary. What’s wrong with that?

Yet another point of compromise could be the Democratic push for a $15 minimum wage, whose increase of any size always makes conservatives clutch their hearts and wallets. The current $7.25 per hour, passed in 2009, is clearly inadequate for any adult and certainly any family. That translates to $15,080 per year based on a 40-hour week, much less than the current federal poverty level of $26,200 for a family of four, a threshold that requires a wage of $12.59 per hour. 

Progressive Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders want to increase the minimum wage to $15 gradually over four years, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would reduce the number of people in poverty by 900,000 and increase the pay of 27 million workers, but could cut employment by 1.4 million and add to the federal deficit. Biden agrees.

Republicans and many Democrats rightly worry that the relatively rapid increase, even in stages, would be a crushing burden on businesses already struggling in a pandemic. So, again, compromise. Extend an increase over more years, perhaps eight, which will accomplish the same goal with less financial pain. Everyone wins. 

All these issues can be negotiated if politicians truly want to help their people, not just score political points. Compromise is not a dirty word; it’s the only path forward that makes sense. Think about it.

Ken Ripley, a Spring Hope resident, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.  

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