Congressional Dems bent the universe toward justice last week. We need to keep pushing

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Hopes of getting an increase to the piteously low federal minimum wage tucked into the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill were dealt a serious blow this week when the U.S. Senate’s Parliamentarian ruled that it couldn’t be included in the massive legislative package now moving through Congress.

The announcement that came Thursday night was widely expected, and the ruling from the strenuously nonpartisan arbiter threw a major roadblock into Congressional Democrats’ path to raising the current federal minimum from $7.25 an hour, where it has sat since 2009, to $15 an hour by 2025, the Associated Press reported.

But if there is a ray of hope here, it is that it now feels like it’s a matter of when, not if, the government will move to lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

And it was one of two developments on Capitol Hill this week that signaled that, after a four-year pause, the United States is back on the path toward living up to the promise of equality and justice for all.

That other development was the U.S. House’s vote Thursday approving a sweeping LGBTQ rights bill, known as the Equality Act. The legislation bans sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination across a variety of arenas, including employment, housing, education, public accommodation, credit, and jury service, according to NBC News.

“The LGBTQ community has waited long enough,” U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the bill’s sponsor, said during remarks on the House floor, according to NBC News. “The time has come to extend the blessing of liberty and equality to all Americans, regardless of who they are or who they love.”

The need for that embedded protection was driven home, ironically enough, not in an employment law case in a state court, but in the halls of the U.S. Capitol this week during a pair of incidents.

During a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, President Joe Biden’s pick for the No. 2 position at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Rachel Levine, of Pennsylvania, endured a transphobic rant at the hands of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Paul, an ophthalmologist, tried to draw a pernicious equivalency between female gender mutilation and gender affirmation surgery for transgender youth. If she’s confirmed, Levine would be the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the federal government, the Capital-Star’s Laura Olson reported.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., meanwhile, was blasted this week after she hung an offensive sign outside her office to mock a colleague across the hall who had displayed a transgender flag outside her office in support of her transgender daughter and to protest Greene’s opposition to the Equality Act. Greene’s sign read, “There are two genders: Male & Female. Trust the science.”

Greene’s assertion, by the way, flies in the face of current scientific assumptions about gender.

But the two incidents are emblematic of the sort of hostile workplace behavior that LGBTQ Americans endure every day without blanket federal protection, though there are a patchwork of protections at the state level, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Both the Equality Act, and what appears likely to be a standalone attempt to raise the minimum wage, will face stiff opposition in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats will have to garner 60 votes to avoid the filibuster.

But as is the case with the LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill, a hike to the minimum wage also is about equality and justice.

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank, impacted workers would earn an additional $3,300 a year under a $15 minimum wage, and majority (59 percent) whose total family income is below the poverty line would receive an increase if the wage is raised in four years’ time. The hike would be particularly significant for workers of color and help to narrow the racial pay gap, the analysis also found.

There have been attempts — dishonest ones — to portray the wage hike as some sort of massive economic boondoggle for low-wage workers. If approved, a $15-an-hour wage comes out to an annual income of $31,200 a year. That’s just a little above the median U.S. income of $31,133, based on 2019 data.

“Right now, you need two to three jobs to survive,” Barbara Coleman, a certified nurse assistant at a Scranton nursing home and union leader said during a conference call with Pennsylvania journalists earlier this week. “Never mind putting meat and potatoes on the table. Right now, we can’t even afford the plate.”

There are a lot of reasons to be discouraged about our politics right now. But amid it all, there were these welcome reminders that, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King noted, the moral arc of the universe, while long, bends towards justice.

Democrats on Capitol Hill helped further that journey. It’s up to all of us to help make sure it gets there.

John L. Micek is the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay.

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