Harkin bill would revive the American Dream

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has introduced a bill that shows the way to a better economic future for most Americans. The Rebuild America Act tackles many of the biggest problems that hold back the American economy and shut off opportunity for working families.

It’s an omnibus bill that will increase employment by making big infrastructure investments, developing renewable energy systems, addressing unfair foreign trade practices, providing assistance to state and local governments to retain police, firefighters and teachers, ending tax breaks that encourage companies to move jobs offshore, and promoting manufacturing in the United States.

It will help workers get a decent return on their education and their work by strengthening the minimum wage and overtime laws, better protecting the right to join a union and bargain collectively, enhancing retirement security, and guaranteeing paid sick leave.

It improves education by helping states improve teacher effectiveness and by investing in school modernization.

And it both reduces the federal deficit and increases tax fairness by closing loopholes that favor the rich, taxing Wall Street speculation, better balancing taxation of earned and unearned income, and instituting the Buffet Rule’s minimum 30 percent income tax on million-dollar-a-year incomes.

The bill would add millions of jobs to the economy, raise the typical family’s income and enhance its retirement security. The tax changes would shift the burden of hundreds of billions of dollars of federal taxation from working- and middle-class families to those who can afford to pay – the rich and ultra-rich.

We want to particularly applaud Sen. Harkin for his courage in swimming against the tide in two critical areas: Social Security and labor policy. The Rebuild America Act rejects the notion that Social Security is too expensive and that we can’t afford to meet the promises we made to America’s workers: That if they worked hard for a lifetime, they could retire with guaranteed benefits and inflation protection. Too many other politicians are ready, if not eager, to cut Social Security’s cost of living protection and to reduce benefits by raising the retirement age, no matter that such changes have the biggest impact on the retirement security of women and blue-collar and low-income workers, many of whom have seen little or no increase in life expectancy. By contrast, Sen. Harkin knows workers need more help, not less; that fewer and fewer workers have pensions; that 401(k) accounts are insufficient and undependable sources of retirement income; that Social Security is steadily replacing less and less of pre-retirement income; and that the Social Security COLA is not too generous, but rather too skimpy to keep up with the cost of health care inflation that drives the spending of older workers.

The Rebuild America Act therefore replaces the Social Security COLA formula with one that better accounts for cost inflation in the products and services that older workers pay for. It raises benefits across the board. And it pays for these improvements and addresses the program’s long-term revenue shortfall by “scrapping the cap” – eliminating the loophole that shelters incomes above $110,100 from Social security taxes.

In the area of labor law, the Rebuild America Act would make the most significant change in the minimum wage in our history by indexing it to inflation after raising it to a more adequate $9.80 an hour over a period of three years. The bill will also correct the gross injustice of freezing the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour, a problem that Congress ignored in both of the last increases it made to the minimum wage. Many states have acted on their own to address this problem, and Sen. Harkin is right to end this disgrace.

The Act will also address the continuing erosion of overtime protection, which is both the legal underpinning of the weekend and the best defense workers have against abusive schedules and worsening work-family conflicts. As long as employers have to pay 150 percent of regular pay for each hour worked beyond 40 in a week, they will be reluctant to force excessive overtime. But the Department of Labor has let the coverage of the overtime law erode steadily over the years, to the point that workers earning near-poverty salaries can be treated as exempt executives or administrators. The Rebuild America Act raises the income threshold for exemption back to historic levels and would guarantee overtime coverage for millions of workers who are unprotected today.