Capitol Report: First skirmish in minimum-wage battle lost, but Bernie Sanders still has secret weapon for future procedural fights

United States

With Democrats on the losing end of a showdown over whether a minimum-wage boost belonged in their $ 1.9 trillion stimulus bill, the first of what could be several big fights over obscure budget procedural rules is over.

The Senate parliamentarian said late Thursday that language to raise the minimum wage was not allowed under rules governing the fast-track budget reconciliation process, striking a blow to Democratic hopes for a major policy victory early in President Joe Biden’s term.

“We are deeply disappointed in this decision. We are not going to give up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $ 15 to help millions of struggling American workers and their families. The American people deserve it, and we are committed to making it a reality,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer afterwards.

Read: $ 15 minimum wage won’t make it into Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion COVID relief package — but lawmakers have other options

But for one Senate committee staffer — who was brought out of retirement by Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders only a few weeks ago — the loss may particularly sting: Bill Dauster, chief counsel for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Budget Committee.

Dauster has long been known on Capitol Hill as a budget process expert extraordinaire, having literally written a book, “Budget Process Law Annotated,” on the subject during his more than 30 years on the Hill.

“I was proud to have argued the case for the minimum wage in reconciliation. The Parliamentarian decided incorrectly,” Dauster tweeted after the decision.

While most budget experts thought it was unlikely the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, would rule a minimum-wage hike in order, the fact it took two days for her to issue a decision was a surprise.

“I thought it was a smart move on the part of Sanders to bring Bill in to negotiate these shoals as he moves forward,” said Bill Hoagland, who sparred with Dauster for years from the other side of the aisle as long-time Republican budget aide.

“Did he have an impact on this debate about reconciliation and the minimum wage? Yes,” he said.

Democrats had taken hope from the lengthy deliberations that they could include the wage increase, which then could have passed the Senate with only 51 votes.

“I think it’s obvious that in terms of the parliamentarian, we think it’s going well,” said Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., on Thursday afternoon.

While the minimum-wage issue has been resolved, other procedural challenges are likely to arise before the stimulus bill is passed or fails. And in a few months a second round of budget reconciliation is likely to begin, with infrastructure seen as the top priority.

Hoagland said Dauster will be a formidable advocate.

“He’s a solid guy — not acerbic, doesn’t yell and beat on the table, and makes his point the way good debaters do,” he said.

“If you’re going up against Bill, you better be prepared. That’s all I can say.”

Dauster’s reentry to the Hill came as Sanders ramped up what many budget experts thought would be a futile quest to include a boost in the minimum wage in reconciliation, an optional process lawmakers can use to speed budget-related law changes through Congress.

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Dauster’s insight was that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office was prepared to make a more in-depth study of the indirect effects of a minimum-wage increase on the federal budget, not just an estimate of how much more the government itself would spend on paying its workers a higher wage, and that that could then change the parliamentary equation.

In January, Dauster authored a guest op-ed in Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill. While conventional wisdom argued a minimum-wage boost would have too little budget impact to avoid running afoul of the Byrd rule prohibition on “extraneous” material in reconciliation bills, Dauster in his op-ed said even those relatively minor impacts, as scored by the CBO for a 2019 minimum-wage bill, should be enough to avoid the Byrd prohibition on “merely incidental” budget effects.

“So it comes down to a judgment of whether the budget effects of raising the minimum wage are ‘merely incidental’ to its nonbudgetary effects,” he wrote.

A few weeks later, the CBO issued a score for an updated minimum-wage bill, taking a broader look at its impact on the economy and how that would affect the government’s finances. That score found it would increase the deficit by $ 54 billion over an 11-year period, the CBO said, “using techniques [CBO] has developed over the past two years.” That compared with a $ 76 million deficit increase for the 2019 bill.

In his January op-ed, Dauster also noted that the 2017 tax cuts passed by Republicans under reconciliation contained provisions to zero out the penalty for people not buying health insurance and to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.

“If it could do those things, it should be able to raise the minimum wage,” Dauster wrote of reconciliation.

On Feb. 15, at Sanders’ request, the CBO sent a him letter comparing the breadth of those impacts — how many budget subject areas they touched — with the breadth of a minimum-wage boost. The CBO said the wage boost’s impact would indeed be felt in more areas, an answer Democrats likely knew before they requested the letter but now had on public record.

In addition to his knowledge of budget process law, Dauster has been described as a “Star Trek” fan and after his retirement took up writing Wikipedia entries on weekly portions of the Torah.

In a profile in Washington Jewish Week in 2017, Dauster was quoted as saying of his retirement plans, “I want to read the classics. I want to watch a lot of movies, maybe take some classes.”

“When we start talking about replacing President [Donald] Trump with somebody else, then I may pay attention again to what’s going on in Washington.”