It was kind of cute, actually.
Two men who, between them, have served about 80 years in Congress — and one of them ran for president — stood there beaming at each other like schoolboys after President Obama gave them a shout-out during the State of the Union address.
California Democratic Rep. George Miller and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin both had dark hair when they got to D.C. in 1975, part of the “Watergate babies” class of Democrats elected after that scandal.
The minimum wage in 1975 was $2.10. Forty years later, the minimum wage is $7.25, and it’s been unchanged for almost five years.
Miller and Harkin have been laboring to change that, which is why Obama looked right at them when he said: “The federal minimum wage is worth about 20% less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. And Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10.”
Indeed they do. Fortuitously, I’d already talked to Miller for my Patt Morrison Asks column, in which he spoke of a “declining wage base” creating “difficult times” for the country. Businesses whose model “relies on wages that are less [in real dollars] than they were in 1968 — that’s a plan for the future of this country? I don’t think so.”
The $10.10 figure is regarded as the Democrats’ last offer, and it’s the figure Obama announced that, by executive order, would be the new wage for federal contract workers.
Miller and I also spoke about the epochal California drought. California’s federal legislators want the government, Miller said, “to calculate how federal assistance can be used [in] California,” considering that “we’re such a diverse economy. Our agricultural economy is more diverse than probably any other state.”
Past droughts have already forced changes in the state’s crops. Farmers have “moved out of some crops that were incredibly thirsty to some that may be less thirsty and more valuable. We’re trying not to grow rice in the Central Valley. [Growers] are moving out of cotton into tree crops — you would not believe the size of the California almond crop.”
The divisions in California — north, south, urban, rural — extend to the congressional delegation, where some Republicans have promised to try to stop the water going to a San Joaquin River restoration, which was being fought drop by drop even before the drought.
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, taken to task by some of the state’s GOP House members, says she’s working on Senate legislation to address the drought, starting with a joint House-Senate committee.
As for Miller, he’ll be living in the drought full time when he retires from Congress at the end of the year — unless, of course, it rains and snows prodigiously in the meantime.
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