Democrats will control the U.S. Senate. Republicans will have a slim majority in the House. Now is the time to ask: what is the agenda? Too easily, it could be just defending the status quo. That won’t cut it with the majority of people who have seen their own economic security whittled away over the past decades, nor will it help with access to the ballot and voting rights. So let’s start with that.
In this democracy of ours, we have one huge wall that enables “taxation without representation.” That law prevents 700,000 Americans from having representation in the Senate and House of Representatives. By law, voters in Washington, D.C., are prevented from electing their own senators and members of Congress to represent them. The more than 700,000 residents of our nation’s capital have no votes in Congress.
Washington, D.C., has more people than Vermont and Wyoming. Both of those states elect two senators and one congressperson. Montana, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine have almost twice the number of residents as Washington, D.C. These states each get two senators and two congresspeople. District of Columbia residents get zero representation. We talk a lot about voting rights, access to the ballot and barriers to voting, but we never discuss the biggest barrier in our country: the prohibition against the citizens of Washington, D.C., voting for and having representation in our federal government.
This could happen in the next two months. Indeed, the House has already passed the DC Statehood Bill, HR 51. Now the Senate needs to take it up and pass it. With the filibuster in place, the Senate would need 60 votes. That won’t happen, but at some point in time, the Senate needs to get rid of the filibuster and the stranglehold this has on the will of the majority — or, to put it in another way, the tyranny of the minority. They could — and should — do this now.
What can the Democrats do immediately to enhance economic security? A lot.
The Republicans are intent on attacking Social Security. Holding the status quo only puts the Democrats on the defensive. Here’s a better strategy and policy position: Let’s expand Social Security. It’s not hard to do. We could increase benefits across the board, take account of parents’ — and particularly mothers’ — time out of the workforce to care for their children and restore student benefits, which were taken away during the Reagan administration. All this could be financed by eliminating the wage cap on taxable wages.
Right now, salaries in excess of $160,200 are not taxed for Social Security. That means that all of Seattle’s high-tech, salaried workers are exempted from contributing additional dollars to Social Security once their income hits this threshold. If we simply replicated the tax for Medicare, which taxes all wages and salaries, the U.S. government could easily fund all these enhancements for the social security of young people, retired people, disabled people, widows and widowers. Our own senator, Maria Cantwell, drafted legislation for all of these improvements. This legislation needs to be dusted off and put into law. Our House members should embrace it, especially as congresspeople Suzan DelBene, Rick Larsen, Derek Kilmer, Pramila Jayapal and Adam Smith are all members of the Expand Social Security Caucus.
Congress could also take a lesson from Washington state by passing a federal version of the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act. The last time Congress did anything for (unpaid) family leave was 30 years ago, at Washington Senator Patty Murray’s behest. It is time our country caught up with Washington and 10 other states — not to mention the world — by putting into law paid family and medical leave.
As Pennsylvania’s Senator-elect John Fetterman points out, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That’s less than half of Washington state’s minimum wage, which will be $15.74 on Jan. 1. All it takes is an act of Congress to raise the minimum wage so that workers are not working themselves into poverty but actually gaining some economic wellbeing from their work. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have a higher minimum wage than the federal mandate. It is past time for workers in the other 20 states to get some respect and wage increases.
A base runner would have a great time with these four proposals: giving Washington, D.C., representation in the Senate and the House; enhancing and expanding Social Security; putting into law paid family and medical leave for the whole country; and increasing the embarrassingly low federal minimum wage that is the current law.
Read more of the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2022 issue.