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Democrats bent the universe toward justice last week
John Micek

Hopes of getting an increase to the piteously low federal minimum wage were dealt a serious blow last week when the Senate’s Parliamentarian ruled that it couldn’t be included in the massive COVID-19 relief package now moving through Congress.

The announcement 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. 

But if there is a ray of hope here, it’s that it now feels like 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 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 House’s vote last 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. 

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 Capitol 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, Rachel Levine, of Pennsylvania, endured a transphobic rant at the hands of Republican Sen. Rand Paul.

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. 

Meanwhile, fellow Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was blasted after she hung an offensive sign outside her office to mocking a colleague 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 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 a 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 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.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.