He didn’t get to be president, but the senator from Vermont is spending his twilight years doing what he loves: Publicly grilling CEOs
Bernie Sanders sits in the conference room of his Capitol Hill office wearing an unfamiliar countenance: The senator is beaming.
He slaps a sheet of printer paper onto the table in front of him. “I just jotted down some notes,” he says with a wolfish grin. “Let me tell you what we’re trying to do and you ask me any questions you want.”
Sanders (I-Vt.) rarely exudes such high spirits in the presence of the press; to interview Sanders, under most circumstances, is to endure his impatient scowl. Something’s different this time. When he walked into the room a few minutes earlier, he had shot me a knowing wink. He seems … chipper? Is Bernie Sanders being chipper right now?
“We’re having a very interesting hearing — pay attention to it!” Sanders says from across the table. The CEOs of three major insulin manufacturers were scheduled to appear alongside the CEOs of three companies that manage prescription drug prices for health insurers. “All on one panel!” Sanders yelps with punchline-like emphasis.
“These are two industries, both very profitable — both, in my view, are responsible for the outrageously high prices that we pay,” he says, jamming his index finger into the table for emphasis. “Each is very critical of the other one. So I want to hear what they’re going to say about each other.”
So, he was planning to hold, like, a debate?
“Thaaaaaat’s right!” he roars, gripping the table as he leans forward. “We’re not supplying the whipped cream pie — that, we’re not supplying!” He chuckles at his own joke.
This is what’s going on with him. The senator is revealing the performance he’s orchestrating. Reality show meets morality play.
Sanders, 81, never got to be president. But he accrued enough political capital, over the course of two formidable presidential runs, to spend the twilight of his Senate career living out a very Bernie sort of fantasy: As chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), he gets to drag his corporate nemeses to Washington to be pilloried for their alleged sins against the working class.
If they come willingly, he will pay them a compliment for doing so, as he did when his panel of pharmaceutical CEOs appeared before the committee last week. If they do not, he will make it known to the hearing room and the congressional record, as he did when he announced during a March hearing that former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz “is with us this morning only under the threat of subpoena.”
“In my view, Starbucks is breaking the law,” Sanders later says in his office. He accuses the company of interfering with its workers’ attempts to unionize — “of firing union leaders who have tried to organize, et cetera, et cetera,” he says — which would violate the National Labor Relations Act. “We brought in Mr. Schultz to make it clear that the American people do not want to see corporations engage in union-busting,” Sanders says. “And! Even more importantly! Just because you’re a billionaire, you know what? You’ve got to obey the law, too.” (Not to suggest that Sanders takes issue with the product itself: “French roast, dark roast,” he says of his order. “I like the coffee. I just don’t like the union-busting.”)
At the March hearing, a capacity crowd of mostly pro-union Sanders fans had supplied the Schultz hearing (episode?) with a laugh track. They chuckled when the former Starbucks boss said, “I take offense with you categorizing me or Starbucks as a union-buster when that is not true.” Some snickered when Sanders cut off Schultz mid-sentence. “Watching this billionaire sit there and be humiliated by Bernie Sanders is just incredible,” Melissa Byrne, the grass-roots adviser to Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, said after the hearing. “Let me watch Bernie eviscerate billionaires on the daily.”
Not everyone’s enjoying Sanders’s programming. The CEOs, for one: Paul Hudson, chief executive of drug manufacturer Sanofi, was heard grumbling about the “kicking” Sanders had dealt him and his fellow chief executives before he climbed into a black SUV after his appearance last week. (A Sanofi spokesperson present at the hearing does not recall the interaction but adds that Hudson “believes Sen. Sanders was tough but balanced.”)
Then, there are the Republicans on the committee. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) accused Sanders of forcing insulin manufacturers “to promise to base their prices on bullying from a politician.” Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), the committee’s top Republican, called Sanders’s Starbucks hearing “a smear campaign.”
But this is Bernie’s show, for now. He has plans for more hearings, more squirming CEOs. “In the not-too-distant future,” Sanders says, he’d like to bring in “our friends in the insurance industry to explain to us why we are paying twice as much per capita, while year after year, they make huge profits.”
He has been contemplating how jobs will be “radically transformed” by artificial intelligence and wants to bring “some of the big tech guys in here to tell us how they’re going to share the benefits with their workers.” He said he might even summon Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos.
To be clear, Bernie Sanders is also angry, still. He’s angry about the “enohmous powah” of campaign contributions, the “yuge amounts of money” spent on lobbying. He’s angry that drug companies still have record profits, that the CEOs are still billionaires, and that the American people “are paying the highest prices in the world by faah” for health care.
He recently published a book with the title, “It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism,” allowing fans to tap into Sanders’s anger on demand. And for all the grinning and chuckling he’s doing in his conference room, his expression at the hearings themselves alternates between an outraged glower and a bored-looking frown.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to be publicly angry at CEOs sparks its own kind of joy — appearing to provide the senator something akin to the rush he felt on the campaign trail, where he scowled on the stump in front of grateful fans. Those campaigns enabled Sanders to construct a massive soapbox, and “he spends a lot of time thinking through whether the platforms he’s built up are still performing,” says Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign manager. “What the campaign was often giving him, on a daily basis, was reaching regular people about the fight he’s trying to wage on their behalf. These hearings are like a campaign rally, but for policy.”
“Look, yes, he is having fun,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, a longtime Sanders aide. “But the joy is not the show — it’s taking action on the issues he’s cared about for his entire career.”
Sanders can exert only so much pressure on drugmakers to lower their prices. When Sanders demanded that Stéphane Bancel, the chief executive of Moderna, reconsider the price of the company’s coronavirus vaccine, he declined.
During his May 10 hearing on insulin prices, he received some assurances that prices would go down, but the progress was yet to be seen. “He didn’t walk out of the hearing fist-bumping everyone,” says Mike Casca, Sanders’s communications director. “What’s there to be happy about? Job’s not finished.” (Sanders said he would follow up with the pharma executives “when we all have a reunion” next year at another hearing.)
The senator can’t force President Biden to visit a unionized Starbucks, either (though Sanders has asked him to do so, according to aides). As a legislator, he’s up against the same limitations as Biden and the Democrats. Republicans control the House, which means the Senate bill that Sanders introduced to raise the federal minimum wage to $17 will almost certainly never become law. Same with Medicare-for-all — at least, in this Congress, which may be Sanders’s last (he has not yet said whether he will run for reelection in 2024).
Sanders nevertheless says his HELP hearings have been, well, helpful. The senator considers it a win that he got the former Starbucks chief to say, over and over again, that he wasn’t busting unions. “You know, he put that on the record,” the senator says, grinning. Moderna’s CEO might have declined Sanders’s suggestion on vaccine prices, but the senator says he expects to see a stronger financial assistance program to help low-income patients access the vaccine. “And if that’s the case, by the way, we will put pressure on other corporations to make their patient assistance programs more effective,” the senator says.
“I’m excited about what we’re doing and what we can do,” he says as he stands up to leave the interview. “We’re trying to do what we can.”