The Byrd rule is not in the Constitution. It’s not what you swore to uphold.
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
March 2, 2021
In the biblical story of Queen Esther, a daughter of the exiled Hebrew people rose to power in the society of her day. When the survival of her people became a political issue before the King, Queen Esther’s Uncle Mordecai wrote on behalf of their marginalized community to suggest that God may have placed her in the position she was in for such a time as this. Queen Esther rose to the challenge and risked her position to save her people.
Vice President Kamala Harris, we write today in the spirit of our ancestor Mordecai, after much prayer and with great hope for you and for America’s marginalized people. We believe you can continue to make history with powerful symbolism and historical substance as the Senate prepares to vote on the Covid relief bill that must include a minimum wage increase for all workers. The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill has passed the House and is headed to the Senate with a wage increase that would lift 40 percent of African-American workers and 62 million poor and low-income Americans of every race.
We believe the Senate’s parliamentarian has wrongly advised that the minimum wage increase cannot be included in the budget reconciliation process. But the 80 million Americans who elected you last November gave you power to overrule the parliamentarian as the presiding officer in the Senate. Republicans would no doubt challenge your decision, but they do not have 60 votes to override it. Keeping the minimum wage increase in the bill would force every Democrat in the Senate to decide whether they are willing to keep the promise the party made to low-wage workers who voted for your ticket over the incumbent president by a 14-point margin.
Like Queen Esther, you face a moment when you will make history. But you must decide what that history will be. On March 14, unemployment benefits will expire after 49 weeks when unemployment claims have been higher than during the worst week of the Great Recession. In this moment, you can make good on the promises of your campaign as well as the needs and demands of the 62 million workers who make less than $15 an hour.
As vice president, it is important to remember that your predecessors have chosen not to follow the advice of the parliamentarians. Vice Presidents Humphrey and Rockefeller ignored the parliamentarian in their own day to do what they thought was right. In a 2010 interview, Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove offered a salutary reminder: “It is the decision of the vice president whether or not to play a role here…. The parliamentarian can only advise. It is the vice president who rules.”
In a moment like this, we recall that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to friends in the civil rights movement in the spring of 1964: “We do not need allies more devoted to order than to justice.” We cannot allow a parliamentarian to stand in the way of justice. Now is the time to answer the cries of those who have struggled to survive on poverty wages for decades.
Vice President Harris, this is an opportunity to help 62 million poor and low-income people. Put these workers and the needs and demands of 140 million poor and low-income people in front of the nation and make these senators decide whether they stand with them or are willing to sell them out to the corporate lobby. As Christian preachers, we recall the words of James 5: “The wages you failed to pay the workers you’ve used and abused are crying out against you. Their cries are a roar in the ears of God.” You have an opportunity to help the nation hear the cries that God hears.”
Some keep saying, “Don’t overrule if you don’t have the votes.” But that is backward. If you never force senators to vote in public, they get a pass. If you put it on the floor with the full package, you force those who’ve expressed hesitancy to take a stand. Democrats have the majority in the Senate because of senators who got elected in Georgia and across the nation who ran on raising the minimum wage and passing a just Covid relief bill. If you deliver on that promise in your first 100 days, you have an opportunity to fundamentally reshape politics in this nation.
Vice President Harris, you have broken glass ceilings by becoming the first female, first Black, and first Asian vice president. But these historic breakthroughs are not enough on their own. Americans need you to make good in deeds the symbolic promise of your historic victory. Your actions will determine whether you are remembered alongside Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other rebellious, heroic women who have fought for justice and were not stopped by those who cautioned patience, moderation, and gradualism.
Twenty-five million people have fallen sick in the United States and 500,000 have died in the past year; 19 million are collecting unemployment; 25 million are facing hunger; and 30 to 40 million are facing evictions. While politicians debate raising the minimum wage, 30 percent of people in households with incomes of less than $25,000 a year report not having enough to eat. More than one of five people in households with incomes of less than $50,000 reported not having enough to eat in February.
This is the moment to raise wages for all workers living in all communities. Not once on the campaign trail did Americans hear you or President Biden say, “We will do $15 unless a parliamentarian rules otherwise.” The Byrd rule is not in the Constitution. It’s not what you swore to uphold. You’ve sworn with your colleagues to establish justice and to promote the general welfare. Because you know poverty wages are not just, you have the moral authority to use your power to do what you promised to do, what you’ve sworn to do, and what we believe you have been chosen to do—for such a time as this.
Know you are not alone. We and 140 million poor and low-income Americans stand with you in solidarity, and we are urging the president, Democrats, and every justice organization to undergird you as Mordecai did Queen Esther in support of the work that must be done.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. His latest book is Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is codirector of the Kairos Center, cofounder of the Poverty Initiative, national codirector of the Poor People’s Campaign, and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, and has spent the past two decades working with grassroots organizations across the United States.