Smith's challenge: a responsible vote on minimum wage

T.A. Barnhart

The House of Representatives voted a $2.10 increase to the federal minimum wage last week (in three increments over the next two years), and the Senate will be taking similar action soon. Over the past two years, Gordon Smith has helped block any increase to the national minimum wage. When he has voted "yes" on the wage, the votes have been on bills whose defeat were assured before the vote. In other words, photo op votes that he could use as campaign material. With Smith waffling on his anti-Iraq stance, his vote on minimum wage will be critical in determining just how well he represents Oregonians.

As Senate Democrats prepare their minimum wage legislation, and Smith looks for his safest path — one that sells well to Oregon voters while maintaining his conservative creds — I'd like to examine what I see as Smith's three responsibilities in regard to the minimum wage.

Political Responsibility

depression-era poverty returns to AmericaAll elected officials have an overarching political responsibility, and that is to the Constitution, the bedrock statement of the nature of American politics. We have chosen to constitute our nation's government and political system as a representative democracy, with varying levels of representation in various institutions. Gordon Smith's political considerations have rarely placed representation of the majority at the forefront of his actions. As Congressional Quarterly noted in its summary of Smith as he entered the Senate in 1997,

Smith was also one of only a handful of state lawmakers who voted against a measure that would have toughened sanctions against employers who violated minimum wage laws.

Smith's political focus has always been on what will enhance his electoral chances. In considering the minimum wage increase, however, Sen Smith needs to amend his political perspective. He needs bear in mind the Framers' political goals for the Constitution:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Justice, general welfare and a more perfect union. These are not insubstantial goals. Our nation is failing terribly on all three, however; the gap between the wealthy and the lower, working and poverty classes — a gap so large and destructive that even conservatives like Kevin Philips speak out against it — makes fulfilling the Founders' goals increasingly more difficult. Too many Americans do without too much, and I don't mean cars, cell phones or tv's. I'm talking about basics: food, decent housing, quality education, health care, security. When the federal government grudgingly guarantees a pitiful minimum wage of $5.15 an hour — that's just barely $10,000 a year, full-time, and many of those in minimum wage jobs work 30-35 hours per week — then the "blessings of liberty" are being denied to far too many people. Sen Smith's vote on the minimum wage has to honor this political principle of justice and promotion of the general welfare.

Of courses, the new Democratic majority gives Smith plenty of political cover, as he shows on Iraq. The minimum wage increase will pass, so he can vote for it knowing his vote, which contradicts GOP policy, won't matter. This tactic, of course, is Smith's specialité, so he should be very comfortable doing it. The test will come later, if Bush vetoes the increase. Sen Smith will then be forced to make a real decision, and that's a political responsibility he tries desperately to avoid.

Moral Responsibility

Gordon Smith is a devout Mormon. I'm not very familiar with the Book of Mormon and the teachings of his church, but I'm willing to bet that care of the needy is a fundamental moral tenet. Jesus Christ, for whom their church is named (Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ), did not condemn rich people as such; he simply pointed out that wealth had a tendency to lead its possessors to eternal damnation. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19—31) is typical: The rich man lives in luxury while refusing poor Lazarus even a crumb; in death, however, the rich man suffers in hell while Lazarus rocks in paradise.

Christian teaching is very clear about the responsibilities we each have towards the poor, the sick, the suffering, the imprisoned: We are to care for them. Matthew 25 makes clear that God is adamant on that point. Those who ignore the poor and suffering go right to hell. Jesus' parable indicates it's a deal-breaker: Be good to the needy or else....

LDS' organizational structure provides the mean for Mormons to care for one another. That's not good enough, of course; this is not a church issue but a national issue. Sen Smith's moral responsibility extends beyond his church, beyond our state borders, in fact. He is responsible to the nation, not only as a Senator but as a practicing Morman, to be compassionate and generous. Gordon Smith has clearly stated that his faith, at the very least, informs his work in the Senate. Therefore he has a responsibility, a religious responsibility, to ensure every citizen is cared for. He has a moral responsibility, under God and the Constitution, to ensure every working American is paid a living wage (which, as we know, even a $7.25 minimum falls far short of).

Intellectual Responsibility

As an elected representative of the people of Oregon, Sen Smith has the responsibility to avoid being stupid. His duplicity on Iraq undermines this hope. His belated opposition — and don't be surprised if he votes for the escalation/surge — is at best opportunistic and at worst, stupid. After nearly four years of war, he finally sees the light. What happened? Did he get fooled for all that time? Suckered by his own president? Or was he just plain dumb?

He now stands to provide one of the key "swing" votes on minimum wage. Will he simply swallow and regurgitate disproven propaganda about the minimum wage killing jobs and the economy? Or will he pay attention to the actual data and use the smarts we know he has (and seems to save for winning elections).

Bill Clinton was one of the smartest people ever to work in Washington, DC. He did great policy; he knew the facts, knew the many implications of different options; he had a big brain and he used the damn thing. Gordo is no Bill Clinton, but he's not Conrad Burns, either. He's smart and he can figure out the true nature of things. The proposed minimum wage increase will not bring down the American economy, and it won't make much of a difference to businesses who are looking to run overseas. For them, $5.15 an hour is five or ten times what they want to pay. As smart policy goes, $7.25 makes more sense than allowing working Americans to struggle endlessly for less and less.


Politics, morality and intelligence do not have a priori natures. We create our truths for what these concepts represent. Perhaps Sen Smith will decide his responsibilities are to right-wing Republicans who have lots of money and hold hard-core conservative religious values, regardless of the data presented by policy wonks. In America, this is his right. And if he does believe this, he should run his campaigns on those principles.

But Gordon Smith runs as a moderate. He sells himself as compassionate, as serving all Oregonians, even (please don't say this too loudly) the queers and atheist tree-huggers. He keeps his Mormonism quiet, even more his toadying subservience to his GOP masters. He does everything he can to hide his 4-year/2-year flip-flopping. Smith's record shows an irresponsible politician with an interest in holding office and little more. His alleged "courage" in turning against the war came at the beginning of his re-election campaign, not a few years back when it would have actually mattered. His votes on ANWR are similarly timed to let him dress up as concerned about the environment but doing nothing of substance unless Ron Wyden provides the balls.

There is ... general agreement among economists that a higher minimum wage, at the levels we are talking about, will have a minimal impact on adult employment. Slightly higher prices might reduce, slightly, the demand for Wendy's hamburgers, cheap hotel rooms and dog-walking services. But largely offsetting those effects will be the increased demand for goods and services by tens of millions of Americans who will finally be getting a raise. A higher minimum wage doesn't lower economic activity so much as rearrange it slightly. (Steve Pearlstein, Washington Post)

There is zero reason to oppose the minimum wage if Gordon Smith is a responsible Senator. Politically, morally and intellectually, it's the right thing to do. It will enhance his re-election chances (grrr). It will make his claims of being a moderate and an independent (he really does try to sell that) less ridiculous. Raising the minimum wage is a minimum effort on behalf of the most needy Americans. If Gordon Smith can't meet that responsibility, then to hell with him.

Gordon Smith is one wealthy Senator


Here is Smith's record on the minimum wage since entering the Senate
March 2005: Smith votes for Santorum amendment raising minimum wage to $6.25 (below Oregon's) but eliminating the state tip credit (and contradicting the stated will of Oregon voters)
October 2005: Smith votes with majority to defeat raise to minimum wage (to $6.25)
June 2006: Smith votes against raise in minimum wage

Email, fax and phone his office. (Phone him for the most direct input: 503.326.3386). The Democratic-controlled Senate will pass the increase; tell Senator Safety he can vote responsibly and cover his electoral ass. I hate helping Smith's election chances, but the minimum wage increase is important to working Americans. Supporting it is the responsible thing to do. Maybe even Gordon Smith can see that.

  • Darrell Wyatt (unverified)

    Once again Blue Oregon demonstrates total ignorance of The LDS Church, its people, its doctrine, and even its name. If you can't get the simple stuff right how can we trust your interpretation of something as complex as the national economy?

  • Russell (unverified)

    T.A. Said: "I'm not very familiar with the Book of Mormon and the teachings of his church"

    Darrell said "Once again Blue Oregon demonstrates total ignorance of The LDS Church"

    Darrell - thanks for stating something TA already alluded to. And to argue that one's knowledge of a particular religion is a gauge of their knowledge of economics is pathetic at best. Enough said.

    Now, about that minimum wage bill, Smith won't ever endorse it if it has a chance of passing. His record speaks for itself, and besides that, he still has a primary to get through and a base to pander to. You combine his 180 flip on the Iraq war with a few votes with the Dems and he might have two elections to win in 2008.

  • urban planning overlord (unverified)

    A raise in the minimum wage is the ultimate "feel good" legislation.

    Unfortunately, any reputable study of the issue shows that raising the minimum wage by a significant amount destroys jobs. Well less than 10% of the American workforce make the minimum wage, and many of those are not full-time adult breadwinners, but rather the proverbial "teenagers working at McDonalds." Such entry level workers are the ones whose jobs will disappear if the minimum wage is raised too high. Vittually anyone else who is not chronically unemployable and has even the semblance of some workplace skills will soon be making more than the minimum wage anyway.

    Do we really want to end up like European countries such as France, where the cost to employ a full-time worker is so great that employers avoid it at all costs, leading to a double digit unemployment rate?

    Instead of this bill, the Democrats should be working on something that truly is broken, like our riduculous national health care system, or lack thereof.

  • David Wright (unverified)
    There is zero reason to oppose the minimum wage if Gordon Smith is a responsible Senator.

    How about this reason for opposing an increase to the federal minimum wage: any state that wishes to increase its own minimum wage is already free to do so (and many have), therefore one can reasonably argue that a raise in the federal minimum is not necessary and may in fact unfairly disadvantage some states.

    Perhaps not a popular view on this board, but a legitimate point of possible disagreement between reasonable people. It is entirely possible and not irrational to be in favor of raising one's own state's minimum wage but oppose raising the federal minimum.

  • Mike (unverified)

    Smith is no Bill Clinton, but no Conrad Burns, either?

    I think he's worse than Burns (who also took money from Abramoff). Smith is a fence-sitting thumb twiddler who generally just tries to lay low so that Oregon voters won't know he's gone along with every major "policy" initiative of the Bush White House.

    It's time to throw out the embarrassing doormat from Oregon, Senator Gordon Smith.

    It's already too late, but from the standpoint of regaining his personal respect, I'd recommend spine implant surgery for him. Will his robotic, talking point repeating staffers who presumably read this board kindly pass that on to him? You boss is a ridiculous joke.

  • (Show?)

    Do we really want to end up like European countries such as France, where the cost to employ a full-time worker is so great that employers avoid it at all costs, leading to a double digit unemployment rate?

    I smell a Straw Man...

    Just to name three of France's immediate neighbors... Belgium has a slightly higher minimum wage and a lower unemployment rate (sub double digits). Luxembourg has an even higher minimum wage (twice what ours is) and an even lower unemployment rate (lower than ours). Switzerland has a yet even higher minimum wage (nearly three times ours) and a yet even lower unemployment rate.

  • Carol (unverified)

    I can just hear this nut scream should Smith make any decisioms that could be directly tied to his faith. What's he whining about then...?

  • (Show?)

    Kevin -- good job! Also the New York Times just the other day had a big article on two towns on the washington (high minwage) / Idaho (low minwage) border and how the washington town in doing great and all the washington places that had cried catastrophe admitted they were wrong, they maybe raised the price of a burger by a dime and nobody cared.

  • Bert S. (unverified)

    UPO and others can look at some stats ....

    "about one-fourth of workers earning at or below the (federal) minimum wage were age 16-19."

    "many" is hardly most. So 3/4's of people making the minimum are not proverbial "teenagers working at McDonalds."

    Also, last I checked (several years ago) Economists studying minimum wages effects have not found them to have had an effect on local employment levels.

    You might be able to argue that income support, rather than a minimum wage, could more efficiently deal with poverty ... and if our leaders were genuinely concerned with dealing with poverty, I might go along.

    <h2>But that doesn't seem to be the case.</h2>

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