“Minimum Wage, Maximum Hypocrisy”

| March 11, 2014

Left, Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, and right, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren; both represent the Senate Democratic caucus’s progressive wing, though exhibit significant differences on the issue of whether or not pay the lowest ranking employees on their respective staffs—their interns.

EDITORIAL – As the minimum wage debate heats up in Washington and as President Obama unveils a new aggressive push for a national minimum wage hike to $10.10 per hour, it’s interesting to see how an already highly polarized and complacent Congress is stacking up behind the debate. What’s even more intriguing is the internal divisions among Capitol Hill offices on the minimum wage issue and how many lawmakers—even the most steadfast of minimum wage crusaders—fail to pay their interns a single cent, let alone the current $7.25 per hour legal minimum.

A recent report from the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) found that 96% of federal legislators who support the recent minimum wage bill fail to pay their interns, a complete list can be found here. Among the most aggressive advocates for a national minimum wage increase are two of the most progressive legislators on Capitol Hill—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Bernie Sanders hails from progressive Vermont—the land of maple syrup, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, New England thrift, scenic fall foliage, and a markedly independent political streak. Elected as an independent to the Senate in 2007 following service in the House of Representatives, Sanders caucuses with the Senate Democrats and employs a firebrand of plainspoken Yankee progressivism on a plethora of national issues. On one occasion Sanders referred to the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as ‘Walmart’s starvation wages’ and has not backed down since on his push to raise the nation’s lowest legal wage.

According to his official Senate website, his interns are paid; albeit, at a modest rate of $10 per hour (which would still be too low if the proposed $10.10 per hour minimum wage bill went into effect). Though, the Vermont Senator, who recently stated that he’s prepared to be president if the opportunity arose and that he’d make a better chief executive than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, practices what he preaches—he pays his interns; he does what little he can do those who are charged to work directly under and for him.

Sen. Sanders ensures that when his idealistic young interns come to the nation’s capital, among the most expensive areas in the country to live, they don’t have to be relegated to poverty in order to serve the American people. Interns don’t simply run around and fetch coffee for legislators and senior aides; they attend committee hearings and take notes, work on constituent casework, attend events in the district and in DC, and help to formulate substantive public policy. Under current U.S. Department of Labor guidelines, the daily duties of most congressional interns would be considered non-exempted from paid status if they provided the exact same administrative support in the private sector—that is, unless Congress didn’t exempt themselves from Department of Labor regulations.

Conversely, there’s Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren; hailing from the Bay State of bustling urban centers, prestigious and austere universities, and garnering one of the nation’s highest gross state products. In the 17th century, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded to be a new religious Zion for English religious and political dissidents. In 1630, would be-colonial governor John Winthrop famously orated that the puritan settlers of Massachusetts should, quoting from the Gospel of Matthew, be as a ‘city upon a hill’; in short, a model of Christian charity.

Fast forward to today, Senator Warren in a March 2013 Senate HELP committee hearing, intensely questioned a series of business owners and economists as to why the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation and economic growth. In fact one University of Massachusetts—Amherst economist posited that if the minimum wage kept pace with inflation since 1960, the current minimum rate should be about $22 per hour. Senator Warren shot backed and now famously queried: “What happened to the other $14.75? It sure didn’t go to the worker.”

Truly the question we ought to ask you Senator Warren regarding your interns is what happened to the entire $22 an hour? What happened to the Bay State’s model of Christian charity Senator? I can understand having a national conversation on the current minimum wage—in fact, I welcome it. Though, if you’re going to be a stalwart and steadfast supporter of raising the minimum wage, you should pay your employees at least the legal floor, regardless of federal labor regulations and exemptions.

There’s been increased speculation regarding Elizabeth Warren potentially throwing her hat in the race for a 2016 White House bid. Both Warren and Sanders are darlings of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and would satisfy the far-left with their potential presidential candidacies in 2016. Though, if the minimum wage debate is a microcosm of a larger issue, it’s that politicians—particularly those of the national and presidential caliber—should be philosophically and ethically consistent. We should hold them to a higher standard; they need it and we deserve it.

In an increasingly uncertain business marketplace, how can legislators decry the national business community for failing to pay adequate wages when they fail to pay their lowest staff members a dime? I wonder how the interns on Sen. Warren’s staff must feel; fighting and working each day to raise the minimum wage for the waitress, the grocer, the clerk, and the teller, yet expect to receive no compensation for their crusade to pad the wallets of others.

Senator Warren, start paying your interns, and your entire staff, the $22 an hour you so ardently advocate for, or stop using that tag line—either way, stop being hypocritical and half-heatedly placating on the minimum wage issue. Let’s have a national conversation on minimum wage, but let’s make sure that those who are among businesses’ toughest critics practice what they preach; let’s make sure they lead by example.

Note: In fairness, Senator Warren’s office was contacted for a comment on this issue; her communication’s outfit was unable to be reached after several attempts.

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