Monday, September 9, 2013

Elevate the Debate

It hasn't exactly been an inspiring week for democratic discourse.

When President Obama decided to submit to Congress the question of military action against Syria, I wrote that he was doing the right thing in showing respect for process. I still believe that. But I also said that it was now up to Congress to "have a dignified and intelligent debate." So far, not so much.

There have been more lowlights than highlights. We've been treated to Rep. Jeff Duncan, Republican of South Carolina, embarrassing himself by launching an ad hominem attack on Secretary of State John Kerry in the guise of a question: “Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating," Duncan said, "that you would abandon past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?”

This is not a statesman making an argument. This is a hack trying to score cheap political points.

Sen. John McCain, who has long supported miltiary intervention in Syria, makes the "credibility" argument. “If the Congress were to reject a resolution like this, after the president of the United States has already committed to action, the consequences would be catastrophic, in that the credibility of this country with friends and adversaries alike would be shredded,” McCain said.

The "credibility" case is perhaps the worst possible argument for military intervention. It amounts to saying that is better to do something stupid than take a chance that you might be seen as fickle or weak by deciding not to do the stupid thing you said you would do. If military strikes against Syria make sense as policy, proponents need to make that case, and not hide behind the absurd "credibility" argument that helped drag the United States into Vietnam.

Congressional Democrats have been no better.

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who seems to want to vote yes in order to support a Democratic president, explained that over 90% of his constituents are against military action against Syria, and cited an exchange with a nurse, who opposes strikes:

"So I said, 'Do you understand there's chemical weapons?' She said, 'Folks have been using chemical weapons for a long time.'"

The problem is that the nurse is factually wrong. Since their widespread use in World War I and subsequent banning in 1925, such weapons have in fact rarely been used. Cummings either did not know that, or did not bother to correct her. Leadership sometimes means telling the people when they are wrong.

The whole idea behind a punitive military response against Syria is to reassert the idea that using such weapons is beyond the pale and insure that it does not now become commonplace. A member of Congress about to vote on the proposal should know that, and has no obligation to be swayed by the uninformed opinions of constituents.

Explaining why he was leaning against supporting military strikes against Syria, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York said: “I wasn’t elected just to go along to get along. I was elected to utilize my thought process and to determine what I think is in the best interest of my district.”

No, Rep. Meeks. When it comes to foreign policy, your job is not to think about "the best interest of my district." A congressional district does not have national security interests; the United States does. In these cases, you think as an American, not as the reflexive servant of your constituents. Meeks was trying to paint his fear of opposing constituent wishes as the political courage to be independent of the president, but instead makes himself look like a politician about to cravenly submit to the voters, rather than deciding what he thinks is right.

If members of Congress think the president is wrong, they should explain why, and not hide behind platitudes about constituent wishes or political independence. If they think he is right, they ought not to use "credibility" to avoid explaining exactly what American interests are at stake.

Perhaps in these hyper-partisan times, an elevated debate was too much to hope for. Rep. Tim Murphy, Republican of Pennsylvania, admitted that his constituents openly say that they oppose action against Syria simply because Obama is asking for it: “Generally, the calls are like this: ‘I can’t stand President Obama; don’t you dare go along with him,’” he said.

I've spent the last several years researching the American debate over involvement in World War II, so I inevitably tend to see this debate through that lens. That debate also had its low points, with demagoguery on both sides often drowning out more reasoned discourse. Some people no doubt opposed FDR's proposals simply because they came from "that man."

Nonetheless, there was a substantive debate over American policy, one that went on for 27 months. In those specific historical circumstances, the United States had the luxury of time. Since then--in part due to the difficulties FDR had in moving Congress toward intervention--presidents have often eschewed Congressional debates before taking action, citing the need for quick action. (It is likely also that they feared getting bogged down in precisely the kind of self-interested and often partisan Congressional posturing we've just seen).

Sadly, the last week shows why those previous presidents acted the way they did. If Congress wants to reassert its role in making foreign and military policy, if it wants to show that those previous presidents were wrong to act without Congress and that future presidents should follow Obama's example, today's Representatives and Senators need to elevate the debate to a level commensurate with the stakes. If they fail, they may squander their last best chance to show that the legislative branch can be a responsible partner in the making of American national security policy.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bare Minimum

Since today is Labor Day, it seems appropriate to note that what was lost in last week's Eleazar David Melendez piece in the Huffington Post on the 1949 minimum wage increase was the role played by American labor.

Melendez rightly notes that the Truman administration and its conservative opponents compromised to reach the agreement to increase the minimum wage, but fails to note what motivated Truman and the Democrats to push so hard for the increase: the desire to fulfill at least one of its promises to labor.

Most union members made far more than the minimum wage in 1949--despite the fact that the final bill raised the minimum from 40 cents to 75, the average wage increase for most workers was only 5 to 10 cents, since most workers earned more than the minimum. Yet labor made it a priority because it saw itself as representing all workers, and believed that an increase in the minimum wage would have a ripple effect that would ultimately benefit all workers.

Politically, labor mattered. In his 1948 campaign, which many political observers dismissed as futile, Truman had run on a platform that pledged two major things to American labor: an increase in the minimum wage (which Truman had first asked for in 1945) and repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which passed the Republican-controlled Congress over Truman's veto.

In his State of the Union address in January 1949, Truman had called for repeal: "At present, working men and women of the Nation are discriminated against by a statute [the Taft-Hartley Act] that abridges their rights, curtails their constructive efforts, and hampers our system of free collective bargaining.... That act should be repealed!"

The reality, however, was that Truman lacked the votes to repeal the act, despite the fact that Democrats had regained control of Congress. The conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats made it impossible.

What was possible was an increase in the minimum wage, and Democratic leaders in Congress quickly gave up on Taft-Hartley repeal and focused instead on that instead. While labor wanted $1 an hour, Truman had asked for "at least" 75 cents while also dramatically expanding (perhaps by 5 million) the number of workers covered by the law.

Predictably, conservatives tried to derail the proposal--but not by using today's obstructionist tactics. They actually proposed an alternative: limiting the increase to 65 cents an hour, indexing the wage to inflation, and eliminating the expansion of workers covered. Truman and the Democrats held firm on 75 cents, and Majority leader John McCormack made that number a matter of party loyalty, citing the 1948 platform. But they accepted the fact that they could not get both an increase in the wage and an increase in coverage, and accepted a bill that, in the short run, actually reduced the number of workers covered by the law.

That compromise led to a 361-35 vote in the House in favor of its version of the bill (this is the vote I referred to as "extraordinary" in the Melendez piece--he mistakenly attributed my statement to another 186 to 116 vote and has not responded to requests to correct the record).

What makes that vote extraordinary is that there were only 263 Democrats in the House. In other words, a large number of Republicans voted to increase the minimum wage.

Contrast that with today's conservative orthodoxy resolutely which resists any increase in the minimum wage. Sunday's Spartanburg Herald-Journal made a typical free-market argument: "The federal minimum wage is an artificial control on the market system" which "will only spur businesses to raise prices and cut jobs." They acknowledge that inflation has eroded the real value of the minimum wage, but reject the idea that this is any reason to increase it.

For the last 30 years, conservatives have resisted increases in the minimum wage, effectively lowering the wage when accounting for inflation. The minimum wage reached its height in 1967, when it was an inflation-adjusted $9.79 an hour. In fact, from 1962 to 1979, the minimum wage was always more than $9.00 an hour. Beginning in 1980 (coinciding with the start of the Reagan era), it began a steady decline, reaching an inflation-adjusted low of $6.59 in 2007.

That finally prompted the Democratically-controlled House in 2007 to pass an increase. They had the votes to do it alone, but a mere 6 years ago, 82 House Republicans also voted to increase the minimum wage. Can anyone imagine today's Republican House members casting such a vote?

The fact that President Obama's current proposal to increase the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour seems dead in the water is testimony to how reactionary today's Republicans have become. That rate today would only restore the minimum wage to where it was at the end of 1961. Despite a general nostalgia for the America of 50 years ago, in this one respect today's conservatives do not want to go back.

It is no coincidence that the erosion of the minimum wage parallels the decline of the power of the American labor movement. Ronald Reagan famously broke the air traffic controller strike in 1981, and it would be 9 years before the minimum wage increased again (it had increased 7 times in the previous 9 years). It is also no coincidence that the same period has seen a marked redistribution of wealth upward.

In 1979, when the minimum wage was an inflation-adjusted $9.33, the bottom 99% controlled 79.5% of the national wealth; in 2010, it was down to 64.6%.

Raising the minimum wage is one of the tools we have to try to maintain the kind of balanced economy that produces widespread prosperity. Today's conservative refusal to use that tool betrays an reactionary agenda that seeks to enhance, rather than alleviate, the trend toward maldistribution of wealth.

For all of its well-documented faults, American labor was a countervailing force that balanced the power of corporate America from the mid-1940s to the late-1970s, to the benefit of all Americans. Its decline in the decades since has led to a distorted, winner-take-all economy which is incapable of maintaining balanced, long-term economic growth. It may be impossible to revive the American labor movement, but it is imperative that we find a political substitute to play the role that unions once played in American political life.