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Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, the District of Columbia, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, as I understand it, there is a general agreement among the leadership that the time between 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. be equally divided between myself, who offered an increase in the minimum wage, and the Senator from Wyoming, Mr. Enzi, who has offered a different approach. We will have an opportunity to control the time in that way.

Mr. President, I yield myself what time I might use.

At 4:30 p.m., we will have an opportunity to vote in this body on whether there ought to be an increase in the minimum wage, a minimum wage that has not been increased over the last 9 years. I am very hopeful that we will vote in this body in support of the proposal I have before the Senate which will increase the minimum wage by $1.10. This is the figure that was included in the Republican alternative of over a year ago. The Republican alternative had additional provisions, and we will have an opportunity to talk about those proposals.

For the information of those people who might be listening to the debate, here is our amendment. It is 2 pages long, and it provides an increase in the minimum wage of $1.10. This is the Republican proposal, which is 87 pages long, which will change the whole concept of the minimum wage and effectively eliminate coverage of the minimum wage for up to 10 million Americans.

The increase in the minimum wage is not complicated. We increase it $1.10. We do it over a 2-year period. It is all in the 2-page amendment I have offered.

There is an alternative, which is the Republican alternative, which basically undermines, in a very significant and important way, the coverage for minimum wage workers and effectively eliminates coverage and protection, even for minimum wage workers.

We will have a chance for this body to make a decision as to whether they want to see those workers in this country, who have been left out and left behind, get a modest bump in their income.

I offered this measure on this legislation because this is the vehicle which carried the increase in the cost of living for Members of the Congress and Senate. It seems to me, if we were going to vote on that, we ought to vote on an increase in the minimum wage. It is the judgment--and one I support--that Members of Congress will not take a cost-of-living increase in their pay this year. We defer that increase.

The fact remains that over the last 9 years, the Congress has increased its pay by $28,000 on seven different occasions. On seven different occasions, it has raised its salary, but we have not increased the pay for those who are at the lower end of the economic ladder who are making minimum wage. I think that is absolutely unconscionable. We will have an opportunity this afternoon to find out whether we are going to do that. In the institution that has raised its salary $28,000 over the last 9 years, we will have an opportunity to see whether we are going to increase annual income by $2,300.

This chart is an indication of the tradition of the Senate since the increase in the minimum wage.

This demonstrates very clearly the increase in the minimum wage. The initiation was by President Roosevelt back in the 1930s and then Harry Truman increased it and then Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, increased it. The history of the increase in the minimum wage has been bipartisan. Dwight Eisenhower increased it. President Kennedy increased it; President Johnson; President Ford, a Republican, increased it; President Carter increased it; President Bush 1 increased it and President Clinton. So this has been bipartisan.

It is difficult for me to understand how the increase in the minimum wage has ended up as a partisan issue. It has been bipartisan. The reason it has been bipartisan is because of whom the minimum wage affects. The fact is minimum wage workers are men and women of dignity. They are hard workers. They are the men and women who clean out the buildings for American commerce. They help and assist our schoolteachers in schools all over this country. They work in our nursing homes to provide help and assistance for the frail elderly, the elderly who have sacrificed so much for their own children and have done so much to make this a great nation. Many of them are served by the minimum wage.

First, these are men and women of dignity, working hard, more often than not having two or even three jobs, trying to provide for their families and having an increasingly difficult time to make any ends meet, and we will get to that.

This issue primarily affects women because about 65 percent of all minimum wage workers are women. The majority of the women who earn the minimum wage have children. So it is a women's issue, it is a children's issue, and it is a family issue because we have families, heads of household in many instances, single moms or single dads, trying to provide for their children, working one or two or even three jobs, trying to make ends meet. So it is a women's issue because so many of the minimum wage workers are women and a children's issue because those children's lives are affected by obviously the circumstance of the one who is providing for them. It is a civil rights issue because so many of these jobs are open to men and women of color. So it is a civil rights issue, a family issue, a women's issue, a children's issue, but most of all it is a fairness issue.

The American people understand fairness. They understand if someone is going to work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks of the year, they should not have to live in poverty. Republicans have understood that, Democratic Presidents have understood it, and I cannot for the life of me understand why our Republican friends on the other side of the aisle, when we have changed our increase in the minimum wage from $2.10 down to $1.10 over the next 2 years, refuse to be willing to accept it.

What is it that they have against working poor people, men and women who are trying to get the first rung on the economic ladder? What is it about it that is so offensive to this body that we do not give them an increase in the minimum wage and we give ourselves repeated increases? That is the issue. And at 4:30 this afternoon, this institution will have a chance to express itself.

The American people understand this. The American people understand the minimum wage. There are a lot of complex issues, and men and women across this country are working hard every single day. They have little time to spend trying to figure out a lot of different kinds of challenges, but they understand an increase in the minimum wage. They understand what difference this makes. They will have an opportunity to hear about it because this issue is not going away. No matter how this turns out this afternoon, the Senate, and most importantly the workers at the minimum wage, can be confident that I am going to continue to raise this as long as I am in the Senate. We will have an opportunity to vote on this repeatedly.

So we can find those of our colleagues who want to try and confuse the issue all they want with 87 pages, but this is an increase in the minimum wage which consists of 2 pages. That is what the vote is for this afternoon. Some of my colleagues want to rewrite the labor laws on this. Fine, let us get to it. But why are we doing that on this particular bill? Increase in the minimum wage, one can ask, why on this bill? Very simply, it was a good enough vehicle to increase the salary of the Members of Congress until yesterday when we neutralized it and it ought to be a good enough vehicle to provide some assistance to those on the first rung of the economic ladder. That certainly makes sense to me. That is not what the Republican alternative is about.

So we have seen that this has been historically something Republicans and Democrats, when they are at their best, have supported. Over a period of years, we have seen what has happened on the issues of productivity. We hear frequently that we cannot afford an increase in the minimum wage unless we are going to have an increase of productivity. It is an old economic argument we do not want to add to inflation, but if we have an increase in productivity, of course, then we can consider an increase in the minimum wage because it will not have an inflationary impact in terms of the economy.

All right. Let us take that argument and see what has happened in terms of productivity over the period of recent years. We have seen now, over the period of the last 40 years, productivity has gone up 115 percent. Notice that going back into the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the minimum wage and productivity lines were always intersecting because we kept the increase in the minimum wage and productivity together. That was an argument that was made. There is plausibility to it.

If that argument was good enough for the 30 or 40 years that we first had the minimum wage, look what has happened in recent times. Workers have increased

their productivity 115 percent, but the minimum wage has declined some 31 percent. So one cannot say we cannot increase the minimum wage because we have not had an increase in productivity. So this is certainly one of the factors.

This chart is enormously interesting because it shows that Americans' work hours have increased more than any other industrial country in the world. Look at this chart. This is an indication of the changes in hours worked per person over the period of 1970 to the year 2002. Actually, in a number of the countries in Western Europe, the percent has gone down, but we have seen in Australia, Canada, and most of all in the United States, it has gone up. Americans are working longer, they are working harder, they are producing more, and one would think that their paychecks would reflect it, at least at the lower economic end, or in all areas it ought to reflect it, but, no, it does not work that way. We refuse to give that kind of a recognition.

Unfortunately, when the President was asked about the challenges that people working for the minimum wage face, the individual conversation between the President and Ms. Mornin, who is a single mother of three, one of whom is disabled, Ms. Mornin said this was on February 4, 2005, in the Omaha Arena in Omaha, NE--I work three jobs and I feel like I contribute.

President Bush: You work three jobs?

Ms. Mornin: Three jobs.

President Bush: Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. Get any sleep? (Laughter.)

That is an indication that there are people in this city who just do not understand what is happening to people who are earning the minimum wage level. They are not getting any kind of recognition. People do not understand what their particular challenge is, but they ought to. I think more Americans do today than they did several months ago.

One of the most moving covers of any magazine was this September 19 cover of Newsweek. It shows a child with tears on her face: Poverty, race, Katrina, lessons of a national shame.

In this rather extensive article about the enormous tragedy that took place in the gulf and in New Orleans, it talks about the other America: An enduring shame Katrina reminded us, but the problem is not new. Why a rising tide of people live in poverty, who they are, and what we can do about it.

There are the striking photos of people who were left out and left behind. The whole article is about hard-working individuals in that region of the country down in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Suddenly, the Nation was focused on their particular plight because when the floods came to New Orleans, we saw the tragic circumstances that they were subject to, the lack of preparation, the lack of organization, and the lack of outreach to them for so many days. These people are still struggling. Along the gulf coast, many of those communities were absolutely obliterated.

I had the opportunity, with several of my colleagues, to visit those areas 3 weeks ago or so and to meet a number of the individuals, not the particular persons who are outlined in this article but individuals whose lives were absolutely the same. We find so many of our fellow Americans who are living in poverty. We find increasing numbers of Americans living in poverty. There are 5 million more people living in poverty. I have a chart that shows it, but it certainly does not tell the story that one sees when they visit the gulf area and visit New Orleans and meet some of these families or even visit with them.

In my own State of Massachusetts at the Otis Base, where we had several hundred of the evacuees who came there, many of them rescued very late in the whole process because they had remained in their homes, some of them trying to help elderly and disabled people, and more than half of whom had arrived at Otis still in their damp and wet clothes, and they received an enormously generous and warm welcome, which they have expressed to our fellow citizens in Massachusetts.

Their stories and their lives are stories of lost hope, lost homes, lost jobs, lost health insurance, lost every aspect, tangible aspects of their lives, separated families, and lost everything but their faith and a sense of hope, a desire to try and get back on their feet. I ask, How in the world is someone going to get back on their feet when they are getting paid $5.15 an hour? How are they going to get back on their feet?

All they have to do is read through this magazine and read the life stories of these individuals who work and struggle in two and three different jobs. There is the case of Delores Ellis: Before Katrina turned her world upside down, this 51-year-old resident of New Orleans' Ninth Ward was earning the highest salary of her life as a school janitor, $6.50 an hour, no health insurance, no pension, and then she bounced around minimum wage jobs.

Ellis said: I worked hard all my life. I cannot afford nothing. I am not saying that I want to keep up with the Joneses, but I just want to live better.

Well, one of the ways that she can live better is an increase in the minimum wage. We cannot solve all of her problems, but we sure can provide some assistance by increasing her minimum wage. It is as simple as that.

Americans can understand that. ``What can we do?'' they say. Well, there are a lot of things that have to be done. We cannot solve all of the problems, but we have to start someplace, and we are starting with an increase in the minimum wage.

Here are the figures: 5.4 million more Americans in poverty over the period of the last 4 years. This is a fierce indictment, and we are going to see these figures have even expanded as a result of the terrible effects from Katrina.

This is what has happened. As we look over history, we see at other times and other Congresses, when Congresses were controlled by Republicans and Democrats--look here, from 1960 all the way through 1980, we have the minimum wage effectively at the poverty level. This is in constant dollars. This was over a period of some 30 years, Republicans and Democrats alike. We say if you work hard, want to work and work hard, you are not going to have to live in poverty here in the United States.

Look what has happened in recent years. Here were the last two increases we had in the minimum wage and here is the collapse again of the minimum wage in terms of its purchasing power.

What did our brothers and sisters in the Congress, what did Republicans and Democrats know then, over a 30- or 40-year period, that we do not understand now? What is it, so that we are so unwilling to see a bump, a small bump of an increase in the minimum wage?

Oh, no, we have an 85-page alternative, they will call it. This is an alternative filled with what we call poison pills, filled with taking people out of coverage, filled with new changes in overtime legislation to limit people from receiving any overtime.

We know the importance of overtime to workers. Many of them use that overtime pay they receive to put away to educate a child. Here we have an attempt to undermine overtime for workers.

An argument is sometimes made that we cannot afford a minimum wage because it will be an inflator in terms of our overall economy. Our economy is somewhat uncertain at the present time, and therefore we cannot afford to have an increase in the minimum wage because it will have an adverse impact in terms of our economy.

This is an interesting chart: Increasing the minimum wage to $6.25 is vital to workers but a drop in the bucket of the national payroll. All Americans combined earn $5.7 trillion a year. A minimum wage increase to $6.25 would be less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the national payroll; one-tenth of 1 percent.

You say this is an inflator; if we increase this to $6.25, this is going to add to the problems of inflation we are facing. Here it is, it is less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

Look at what these working people are faced with. There is an increase in cost of gas of 74 percent. You ask so many of those people down in New Orleans why they were left trapped in New Orleans, and so many will tell you they were trapped because they couldn't afford a car or they couldn't afford the gasoline to get out, and therefore they were trapped. A number of them lost their lives. Others lost everything, because we have seen the increase in the cost of gasoline, 74 percent; health insurance is out of sight for any of these families, up 59 percent; housing and rental gone up through the roof, and college tuition--it has gone up 35 percent, effectively eliminating those possibilities to so many.

Now over this coming winter here, we have now at the end of October a chance to raise the minimum wage $1.10, the figure the Republicans had suggested last year. Here we have what is going to happen in our region of the country. In the colder region--not only the Northeast but in many of the colder regions--we are going to see a 50-percent increase in the cost of natural gas for heating, we are going to get about a 27 to 30-percent increase in the cost of home heating oil, and about an increase of 5 to 7 percent in the cost of electricity. Our part of the country uses 40 percent natural gas, 40 percent heating oil, and this is the rest. We see what is happening in the home heating oil.

Now we can say at least Congress is going to help some of these families because they are going to recognize the explosion of these costs of heating and keeping warm in these homes. In many instances it is as important as their prescription drugs and the food they eat. They are going to have to make some hard choices. This is the reality. We are saying at least give them $1.10. You are going to find out if any of the minimum wage workers, maybe working a couple of jobs and maybe with a home up in New England--their heating bills are going to go up $600 or $800 or $900 over the course of the winter.

What is Congress doing? Basically it authorized the $5 billion to try to help provide some relief. We hear the explanation for the increase in these costs is because of what has happened to refineries in the gulf. That is an act of God. We couldn't control it. So those refineries are down. Now we find out that the gas and heating oil have gone up and it is going to be particularly harmful to needy people, to poor people, to people earning the minimum wage.

Are we giving them any help and assistance? The answer is no to that. We are not seeing any increase in the home heating oil program, the LIHEAP Program. We are not seeing any increase in that.

They are getting the short shrift every single way: No help and assistance in facing a cold winter, no help and assistance we can provide by approving a $1.10 increase.

I see my friend from Iowa here on the floor. I want to point out to him, as someone who has been such a strong supporter on these issues, here is a two-page increase for the minimum wage in $1.10. Here is the Republican alternative, 85 pages. It rewrites the whole of labor laws, 85 pages. If you are going to be against it, why don't you just be courageous enough to say no?

No, no, they want to say: Oh, no, we have a real alternative in here. We are going to exclude a number of people who are covered with the minimum wage. That is where we are going to start, so they are not even going to get the $5.15 an hour. And we are going to make many people work overtime and not get overtime pay. Oh, yes, we will do that.

You know what else, I say to Senator Harkin. There are provisions in here that say if you are an employer and you effectively violate what they call a paper report in here, you will get a nonmonetary fine. You will get no monetary fine, even though that might be an oil spill, that may be contaminated food. Why are we pulling that here in the Senate this afternoon? What is it about it that we suddenly know so much about that particular issue here on this particular legislation?

If you are going to be against $1.10, be against $1.10. But they have all of the other shenanigans in that legislation that are going to provide additional short shrift for the neediest people.

I will be glad to yield some time to my friend and colleague from Iowa.

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