Debt Ceiling Fight: Senator Bernie Sanders on Cuts to Social Programs

By: Fortesa Latifi; Teen Vogue 

Republicans have “been after Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid for a long, long time.”

The first major fight of the 118th Congress has arrived on Capitol Hill. It’s about the debt ceiling, with some Republicans threatening to default on the United States national debt in order to score political concessions from Democrats.

If it feels like this happens every few years, it’s because it does. Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling three times under former president Donald Trump and President Biden secured a raise in the ceiling in 2021, which set a timer that will go off in June if measures aren’t taken. The debt ceiling is the amount of money the United States can borrow to pay the nation’s bills. According to the New York Times, “because the United States runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.” If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the country would soon be in default, which experts say could trigger a recession, resulting in millions of lost jobs and skyrocketing unemployment.

Though the debt ceiling has been raised 78 times before, some  Republicans are using the showdown to push for long-desired fiscal cuts to programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, even as President Biden has repeatedly stated he will not negotiate with the GOP. “I will not let anyone use the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip,” Biden said at an event in Virginia. A White House economic adviser called negotiations a “nonstarter” for the president.

To understand the ramifications of the debt ceiling showdown, Teen Vogue spoke to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont about why young people should be paying attention to this mess.

Teen Vogue: Can you break down why this debt ceiling fight happens with the Republicans every few years?

Bernie Sanders: The longstanding goal of the Republican Party, with a few [Republican politicians] not on board, is to give massive tax breaks to the rich and large corporations and to cut government funding for vitally important programs for working families. They’ve been after Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid for a long, long time. Meanwhile, under Donald Trump, they were so concerned about the national debt that they increased it by $[7.8] trillion, including, among other things, a Trump tax plan that gave over [$5.5 trillion] in tax breaks to the 1% and large corporations. What you’re seeing is just another excuse Republicans are using to cut programs for working families. They don’t believe in these programs. They never have.

TV: Young people don’t know if they’ll be able to save enough money to retire or if these programs will even be intact by the time they can benefit from them. Why should they care about the future of these programs given this grim outlook?

BS: I’m going to answer your question, but the question all of us should be asking is how does it happen that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world… almost 60% of Americans working today are working paycheck to paycheck? Millions are working for starvation wages. We have more income and wealth inequality than we have ever had in the history of this country. And the younger generation, for the first time in modern American history, will likely have a lower standard of living than their parents if we don’t develop economic policies to change that. That’s the question we should be asking, and the answer has to do with the corrupt political system in which billionaires and corporate leaders exercise enormous political and economic control over this country. In terms of programs like Social Security, there is no reason at all we should be cutting Social Security. We should, in fact, expand Social Security. I know a lot of young people think, Social Security is not going to be there for me when I retire, and that’s nonsense. That does not have to be the case. The way you deal with the solvency issue is by lifting the cap on taxable income

TV: What would a default mean for the reality of young people’s lives?

BS: It would be terrible. Right now, it is no secret that the younger generation is struggling economically. In most cases, they’re worse off than their parents. It’s really quite incredible, despite the increase in wealth in this country because the wealth increases are going to the 1% and not to the middle class and working families. A default means you’re simply not paying your bills. If the United States defaulted, the world economy would be in turmoil. There will likely be a massive recession, interest rates will soar, and unemployment will significantly increase. Republicans are playing Russian roulette with the future of our economy. They’re not willing to pay off the debt that they helped incur [under Trump]. This is not new spending. You can argue about new spending, [but] this is spending that already took place under Trump, under Biden, and under previous presidents. Now, they’re saying we spent the money, [but] we don’t want to pay off our debts. That’s a disaster and it’s very dangerous.

TV: As you said, the younger generation is worse off than their parents and there can be this feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness. What can young people do to counter that feeling?

BS: This is precisely what the big money interests in this country want people to feel. They want to say, ‘We run the world. We’re billionaires. We control the economy and the political life of the country… and we hope you’re in despair. We don’t want you to pay attention. You’re powerless. We have the power.’ And I think what people have got to understand is that real change in this country, whether it’s women’s rights or civil rights or gay rights or union rights, those never took place without a struggle, standing up and fighting back. If Martin Luther King Jr. felt hopeless and threw in the towel, we’d still have segregation in this country. If suffragettes threw in the towel, women would still be second-class citizens without the right to vote. If you’re concerned about the future of this country at all, you have to stand up and fight back. And when it comes to hopelessness, let me tell you this: There are now more strong, progressive people in the US House of Representatives than at any time in the history of this country.

TV: What brings you hope right now?

BS: There is a growing understanding that there is something profoundly wrong about an economy in which three people own more wealth than the bottom half of American society and where the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider. People all over the country are demanding an economy that works for all, not just a few. I’m confident that’s going to lead to the kind of profound, systemic change that we need. Change is not easy. Go back to history. You have to stand up, educate, organize, and fight for change. I believe we’re in the process of doing it. Despair is not an option. We have to keep going.