MONTPELIER — On Saturday, Sen. Bernard Sanders hosted a “Town Meeting on Senior Citizen's Issues” at the Montpelier High School, railing against Republican efforts to balance the budget on the backs of seniors and working class Vermonters.
Sanders' told the audience of about 200, mostly seniors, that it's GOP policy choices that have ballooned the nation's debt by increasing the deficit with unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tax breaks for corporations and massive tax cuts signed into law by President George W. Bush.
Now, facing a $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit, Sanders said, Republicans are looking at older Americans and working families to balance it.
But Sanders said the debate taking place right now in the Capitol is not about the budget, the looming debt ceiling, or deficits; the debate is “ideological.”
Rather than increasing taxes or closing tax loopholes, Sanders said, the Republican plan to balance the budget is to cut Social Security, change Medicare into a voucher program and gut Medicaid. He was referring to the so-called “Ryan Plan,” introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this year.
As the new chairman of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging and a member of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders said, “Cutting programs, that is the only approach (Republicans) are willing to take.”
But, he said, this is nothing new. The GOP has always opposed Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“The right wing hates Social Security because Social Security has worked,” Sanders said. “It has done what it was supposed to do.”
Sanders went on to insist that “Social Security has not added to the national debt one penny.”
Anybody who says Social Security needs to be cut in order to balance the budget, he said, is not telling the truth.
According to the actuaries, Sanders said, the Social Security trust fund has a $2.6 trillion surplus, and if Congress did nothing, it would continue to pay full benefits for 26 years.
Rather than raising the retirement age, as some Republicans, such as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), are recommending, Sanders would like to see the cap on Social Security contributions lifted.
As the system currently works, a person making $3 million a year pays the same amount of money into Social Security as someone making $106,000, according to Sanders, who said that needs to change.
But regardless of what is done to extend Social Security benefits, Sanders said, the Republican cuts are about their ideology, and have nothing to do with the budget.
In terms of balancing the budget, Sanders said he thinks “shared sacrifice” is better than slashing programs.
Rather than continuing to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, as Congress did last December, Sanders said the wealthiest Americans should be asked to pay more. He would like to see the tax rates returned to what they were under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he said, there was a healthy budget surplus.
On Thursday, Sanders issued a press release urging President Barack Obama and Democrats to not “capitulate” to Republican demands for cuts to programs and no tax increases.
“Poll after poll shows that the American people do not agree with the Republican approach, which suggests that the wealthiest people in the country and the largest corporations should be exempt from participating in deficit reduction,” said Sanders in the statement.
The senator has prepared a speech to be delivered on the Senate floor Monday at 4 p.m. to lay out what his vision of shared sacrifice and budget priorities.
And one of those people leading the Republican ideological charge is Grover Norquist. Norquist is a Republican activist and a founder of Americans for Tax Reform — an organization that vehemently opposes taxes in general and tax increases in particular. Norquist founded his organization in 1985 with the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” that all politicians — state and federal — are encouraged to sign, swearing that they will never raise taxes.
In 2001, Norquist told NPR's Mara Liasson that his goal is to shrink the size of government so it's small enough so he can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.
One of the signers of the Norquist pledge is US Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.). On Thursday, Cantor broke off budget negotiations led by Vice President Joe Biden. He said in a statement that he will no longer participate in any budget discussions until Democrats take all tax increases off the table.