Looking ahead to next week’s State of the Union address, Sen. Bernie Sanders hoped that President Obama will address the decline of the middle class and the need to create jobs. “What I want to hear the president say is that at a time when our infrastructure is crumbling, at a time when we need to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to deal with global warming, he is going to push major legislation in those areas to create millions and millions of jobs,” Sanders told Tavis Smiley on PBS.
Tavis: Bernie Sanders is the longest serving Independent in U.S. Congressional history now in his third term in the Senate from Vermont after 16 years in the House. In addition to his seat on the Senate Budget Committee, he is also the new Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee. He joins us tonight from Washington. Senator, it’s always good to have you back on this program, sir. Thanks for your time.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: Great to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start with where we are now. We are caught between the president’s inauguration day speech and his State of the Union address. I want to cover both in just a second and so much more while I’ve got you tonight. But let me start with the inauguration speech. It’s the first time that you and I have had a chance to talk in person. I was in your state a few weeks ago and spoke in Burlington, as you know, but we didn’t get a chance to talk that day.
So let me just start by asking your thoughts about the inauguration speech. The media story on the speech was that it was a very liberal, very progressive, view that the president expressed for what he wanted to get done in the next four years. As, again, the longest serving Independent, how did you hear that speech?
Sanders: Well, you know, the phraseology of liberal, we have to ask ourselves exactly what that means. Was it a real tribute to the struggle of gay people in this country? Absolutely. First time gay issues were ever mentioned in an inaugural. Was it important that he mentioned global warming and the fact that global warming is the major planetary crisis this world faces? That was extremely important.
But when it comes to an issue that I feel very strongly about, that is the collapse of the middle class and the fact that over 46 million Americans today are living in poverty and the gap between the very rich and everybody else growing wider? He didn’t get into that issue terribly much. So to my mind, what we need to do and what he needs to do is to understand that, yes, deficit reduction is an important issue. We have a trillion dollar deficit this year.
But we also have to address the basic economic issue of the decline of the middle class, the fact that real unemployment, Tavis – real unemployment, you know, is not 7.8%. It’s 14% counting those people who have given up looking for work and are working part-time. Did he pay enough attention to that issue? I think not, and that is the issue I think that we’ve got to have to focus on.
Tavis: So there’s so many issues to get into tonight. We’ll get to all of them or as certainly as many as we can with the time that we have here. Let me advance forward, then we’ll come back. That is this notion of the State of the Union. So you’ve just said a moment ago what he did not get into in his inauguration speech and, of course, those things are only 17 or 20 minutes. He couldn’t get everything in that speech.
But give me a sense of what you’d like to hear him put front and center, the challenge you’d like to hear him offer to Congress when he gets to the speech in just a matter of days where he has more time to develop whatever’s in his heart.
Sanders: I think the most important issue for him to speak about is the understanding that this country cannot go forward in terms of an austerity program, cuts, cuts, cuts, but in fact we have to do the very opposite and that is to create the millions and millions of jobs that our nation desperately needs. We’ve got 23 million people unemployed or under-employed. In terms of unemployment rates for people of color or for young people, the numbers are phenomenally high.
What I want to hear the president say is that, at a time when our infrastructure is crumbling, at a time when we need to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to deal with global warming, he is going to push major investments in those areas to create millions and millions of jobs. Second issue, in terms of deficit reduction, what we have to understand is that, yes, we have to go forward, but we cannot do it on the backs of the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.
I would like to hear this president say, no, I am not going to cut Social Security which, by the way, Tavis, has nothing to do with the deficit. I am not going to cut Medicare, veterans’ programs or Medicaid. I am going to ask the largest corporations in this country, one-fourth of whom are paying nothing in taxes, to start paying their fair share of taxes.
Tavis: What most concerns you – and I think you’ve just answered this question in part, but I want to be very specific in my asking of this. What most concerns you about what the president is likely to give on? You’ve just listed a couple of things. Maybe there are others. But what’s your greatest fear about what he may compromise, may give in, may capitulate on?
Sanders: In terms of some kind of grand bargain, I’m afraid that the president will continue down the paths of more and more cuts. Yes, we did get $700 billion dollars over a 10-year period from people earning $400,000 a year or more. That’s good, but that $700 billion is not the $1.6 trillion that the president originally wanted. So we need more revenue for deficit reduction and I hope the president remains strong on that.
On the other hand, what worries me very, very much is that the president may end up supporting something called the chained CPI, which would make very significant cuts starting immediately on Social Security, veterans’ needs and that worries me. In addition to that, I’m worried about cuts in benefits for Medicare and Medicaid.
Tavis: Let’s talk politics here, not even policy, but politics. We’ll come back to policy in a second. So the politics are this. The president cleaned the clocks of Republicans in January. They have at the moment agreed to, you know, put off this debt ceiling debate.
We’ve got a little extra time now on the debt ceiling, but they are going to be looking to extract some blood. They want some revenge for having gotten so beaten down by the president in these fiscal cliff negotiations. Where the politics are concerned, how accurate is that narrative I just laid out?
Sanders: Well, I think you’re right, but here’s the point that you didn’t mention and that is poll after poll tells us that the American people are very clear. They understand that in this very difficult economy where so many people are hurting that you don’t cut Social Security or disability programs. You don’t cut Medicare, you don’t cut Medicaid.
So if the president were to go forward and say, excuse me, we’re not going to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable, but you know what we are going to do? We’re going to look for hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from those companies that are stashing their money on the Cayman Islands or Bermuda or other tax havens. We’re going to take a hard look at all corporate loopholes.
For example, we’re going to look at – I would hope he would say – the absurdity of continuing to give tax breaks and subsidies for the largest oil companies in this country who are enormously profitable. Bottom line here is, the president should be doing – and this is not hard politics. It is exactly what the American people want. They want jobs, they want rebuilding the infrastructure.
Many people want to transform our energy system and people want, in terms of deficit reduction, to ask large profitable corporations – let’s not forget. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. CEOs, these guys on Wall Street making huge amounts of money. The American people are pretty clear all across the political spectrum that they want those folks to help us through deficit reduction, not elderly people, not children, not sick people.
Tavis: I agree with you point by point on the analysis you’ve just laid out, but I want to push back respectfully to get your take on this because I disagree with you on the fact that it’s not hard politics. For a guy like Barack Obama, it is hard politics because – and I agree with you again – but the politics are hard for him and here’s why. Because he’s already signaled that he’s willing to talk about deficit reduction.
There are a lot of folk on the left, a lot of Progressives already disturbed that he’s just gotten a little too comfortable even being willing to make deficit reduction a priority. Given all the pain that people are enduring right now, why even put that on the agenda?
Paul Krugman writes about this every other day, it seems like, in The New York Times. Stop embracing this notion of deficit reduction. And Joseph Stiglitz, he’s not – there are others who make this point all the time, including Bernie Sanders. But my point is this. You got people pushing him now to talk about deficit reduction. He’s already signaled that.
But if you look at these Sunday morning talk shows, and I’m not talking about folk on the political right now, I’m talking about Democrats and folk on the left who are guests on these Sunday morning shows who are saying that he’s going to have to agree to some entitlement cut spending. Turn on the TV programs any Sunday morning and folk on the left are saying that, where the politics are concerned, he’s going to have to agree to these entitlement cuts. So tell me why the politics on that aren’t hard as you see it?
Sanders: Well, you’re absolutely right. You know, back it up and understand that there are people like Wall Street billionaires like Pete Peterson and others who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create this type of culture that says we’re going to have to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s what they have been promoting for years. And it is absolutely true, Tavis. I agree with you that there are Democrats who have bought into that.
But what I am saying, you look at poll after poll after poll and the American people have not bought into that. Sunday talk shows? Yes. Average American? No. Because the average American understands that the people on top, large corporations doing phenomenally well, while ordinary Americans are hurting and that the most important issue, by the way, is not deficit reduction. It is the absolute need to create millions of jobs.
I am very worried that you’ve got a generation of young people, many of them coming out of college deeply in debt, can’t find a decent paying job, worried about older workers laid off, they’ll never have another job in their lives. We have got to address the reality that we are still living in a major recession and we have got to create those jobs.
Tavis: What’s going to happen to tax rates?
Sanders: Well, from my perspective, I think the president was right originally in saying that we should do away with Bush’s tax breaks for people making $250,000 a year or more. That’s an issue that I would certainly revisit. But right now in terms of where we go from here, I think it’s important to look at the reality as I mentioned earlier.
One out of four profitable corporations in America doesn’t pay a nickel in taxes. We have corporate tax rates today on their profits which are the lowest that they have been in many, many years. So I think it is absolutely appropriate to start asking corporate America which is doing very, very well to help us with deficit reduction.
Tavis: So whether one agrees or disagrees, likes or loathes the president and his choices, one cannot argue that in the first term at Treasury, we got a Wall Street-friendly guy and he’s just nominated another Wall Street-friendly guy to head the Treasury Department this time. I’ve been hearing and reading in certain places that you have some concerns about Mr. Lew, Jack Lew, as Treasury Secretary. So tell me more.
Sanders: Well, I have been very concerned about it from day one. You know, let me be very clear. I supported Barack Obama originally. I supported him for reelection and the alternative of a Mitt Romney is very, very clear to everybody. And I think the president has done a good job in a number of areas. But one area that has concerned me from day one has been his reliance on Wall Street type people in terms of financial matters.
And Jack Lew is part of that milieu, part of that background. He worked at Citigroup several years ago when the president conceded to the Republicans an extension of Bush’s tax breaks for the very, very wealthy. That was an issue I was on the floor of the Senate for eight and a half hours about. That was Jack Lew who was pushing that.
So I think that at a time, Tavis, where we need to understand that, in the long run, the long run, the middle class is not going to grow and our economy is not going to be strong unless we tackle the enormous power and greed of Wall Street. Unless we do that, we’re going to continue to have serious economic problems. And it bothers me very much that Obama keeps bringing in to his cabinet and his financial team people from Wall Street.
So my own view is, among other things, we’ve got to start breaking up these huge financial institutions, top six of which have assets equivalent to two-thirds of the GDP of the United States. Three out of the top four are bigger today than when we bailed them out because they were too big to fail.
So I worry very much and get very upset about the president keeping bringing in these guys from Wall Street rather than giving us somebody who is prepared to take on Wall Street, break up the large banks, demand that they start investing in the productive economy rather than maintaining the gambling casino which is what Wall Street mostly is today.
Tavis: But when both parties are bought and bossed by big business, how do you do that [laugh]?
Sanders: Well, hey, Tavis, you laid it out. That is the issue. So let’s be clear. You know, when it comes to Wall Street, nobody should think that the Congress regulates Wall Street. Quite the opposite. Wall Street has enormous power over the Republican Party, enormous power over the Democratic Party. And when you throw in the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision giving these guys even more power to buy and sell politicians, we’re in a difficult shape.
But at least we have to acknowledge just what you said. The power of Wall Street in owning and having significant control over both political parties, that is the reality, but that’s a reality that we have to address and stay focused on.
Tavis: To your point about Citizens United, one of the ways that we might push back on this money being the mother’s milk of all of our politics notion, one of the way to push back on that would be some real, some serious, campaign finance reform.
There was hope back in the day that the president might eventually get around to that, but both he and Romney, you know, just played by the rules the last time around. So the politics get flooded with $6 billion, $8 billion dollars of money into these various pots. So it raises this question. What evidence do you because I don’t see any as yet?
What evidence do you see that this president this time around is serious? I’ve not heard him in any interviews say anything about campaign finance reform as one of his priorities. How do we get to that if this president, with all the money he raised, won’t ever put campaign finance reform on the table?
Sanders: Well, Tavis, you’re raising exactly the right questions and the answers are difficult. To my mind, the only way we move this country, number one, in overturning Citizens United, number two, moving the public funding of elections, is through a very, very strong grassroots movement that gives the president an offer and members of Congress an offer they can’t refuse. People have got to understand that the issue in Congress is not what the media talks about on why can’t Democrats and Republicans get along.
That is not the issue. The issue is that, to a very significant degree, the Congress of the United States of America is controlled by a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people and corporations, Wall Street being at the top of that list. And unless we address that issue, I fear very much for the middle class. I fear very much for our kids, for low income people and for seniors.
Give you just one example, one example. You have this business roundtable which is the organization representing the CEOs of major corporations in America. These guys, without exception, make huge amounts of money.
Some of them are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. All of them have these great retirement packages that the average American could not even dream of. Couple of weeks ago, they made an announcement that it is their view that we should raise the Social Security age to 70 and the Medicare eligibility age to 70 as well.
Can you conceive of the arrogance of these people who are at the top one-tenth of one percent of the income stratum telling working families that, before they can collect Social Security, they got to be 70, before they can get Medicare? So all of this is about the continuation of a class warfare being perpetrated by people who have incredible wealth, incredible power. Citizens United makes it even worse.
And at the end of the day, unless we have a strong grassroots political movement which says, excuse me, we’re not going to maintain this incredibly unequal distribution of wealth and income in America. Excuse me, the United States government is supposed to represent all of the people, our kids and the elderly and workers, not just billionaires. Until we have that movement, I doubt very much that you’re going to see the kind of political changes in Washington that we need.
Tavis: Some believe that the only way to really deal with this would be a constitutional amendment. That’s really the only way to push back now, given what the Supreme Court has already decided on Citizens United. As you and I both know, being good students in our political science classes, that a constitutional amendment is the most difficult thing in all of the body politic to actually accomplish to get done.
What are your thoughts about whether or not at some point in the future it might require and might it be possible that a constitutional amendment could be advanced to actually and finally do something about money in our politics?
Sanders: Well, Tavis, I am not a great fan of, you know, bringing forth a constitutional amendment every other day. But I do believe that, on this issue of Citizens United and campaign finance reform, it is such an enormously important issue. It so much speaks to the heart and soul of American democracy that that is the route to go.
I have introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and make it clear that the Congress and state legislatures do have the ability and the power to regulate and get corporate funding out of political campaigns.
Tavis: While I’ve got you here, let me throw a few other issues at you that are in the news, just get your top line take on some of these issues. Chuck Hagel? Is he going to make it through with Defense?
Sanders: I’m not much into speculation. My guess is that he probably will.
Tavis: Will you vote for him?
Sanders: Not sure yet.
Tavis: What are you unsure about?
Sanders: Well, there a couple of factors. I met with him and I’ve known Chuck for many, many years. I am concerned historically about his feeling about women in general, about gays in the military, as well. He reassured me that his views have evolved and changed and that’s good, but I still have some concerns about that.
Tavis: Immigration. The president has given his speech on it. This bipartisan committee or bipartisan group, this gang of eight in your body, the Senate, has come forth with its proposal. The ultimate question is whether or not this year you expect that we will see meaningful immigration reform?
Sanders: I would say that we have a reasonable shot in fact to do that. I think – and this is where elections do have consequences. The Hispanic community was very involved in Obama’s reelection. Democrats know that and Republicans are very nervous about their political future with regard to the Hispanic community.
So I think there is, in terms of public support and understanding, that is just simply wrong, unfair that 11 million people continue to live in a sense in the darkness, not having their legal rights. There has to be a path toward citizenship. My guess is that will probably happen.
Tavis: This is real, real, real, inside baseball political question, but PBS has a smart audience. I think most folk will come with me on this. For those who don’t, you can Google it and read about it because it’s too long to explain in 20 seconds. But it is meaningful, and that is this notion of whether or not there will ever be filibuster reform in your body?
Sanders: It is a huge issue and I hope everybody in American understands what that issue is about. Since Obama has been president, the Republicans have done everything they can to obstruct anything, any type of legislation that benefits working people, addressing global warming and many other issues. A number of senators, Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, me, others, work very hard to bring about real filibuster reform, and what does that mean?
What it means is that the Senate is not the House and, if a senator strongly disagrees, he or she should be able to get onto the floor and talk for as long as he or she wants about the issue. But after that debate is over, after people have nothing more to say, we need 51 votes, not 60 votes, to pass major legislation. That’s why I voted against the so-called filibuster reform which really wasn’t filibuster reform.
And here’s the point that everyone should know. We are not going to pass any significant legislation dealing with the economy, dealing with global warming, dealing with immigration, dealing with anything, unless we have 51 votes. By the time you get the 60 votes, it’s going to be watered down.
Tavis: I got 30 seconds to go, but I don’t want to close without asking you what your primary goal is now that you are the Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Sanders: We got many, many problems within the veterans’ community and many, many assets as well. I want to, first of all, make sure that every veteran in this country understands the benefits to which he or she is entitled.
I want to deal with the huge backlog that we have in terms of the amount of time it takes veterans to get benefits. I want to deal with the suicide issue. Veterans are killing themselves at rates that are just off the charts. We got to address that. We have to address PTSD for those men and women who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a lot to do for our veterans.
Tavis: He is the longest serving Independent in all of Congress. He is Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. Senator, good to have you on this program. Always delighted to talk to you and get your take on the issues of the day.
Sanders: Thank you very much, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until tomorrow night, keep the faith.
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