Sanders Op-Ed: What now?

By:  Senator Bernie Sanders

The Republicans won big on Tuesday. Not only have they taken over the U.S. House of Representatives and made major gains in the Senate - but many of the newly-elected Republican members are extremely right-wing.  I want to take this opportunity to discuss a few of the major issues that will surface in the near future, what the debate will be about, and what my views are.

job huntingFirst, it is imperative that all of us, those of us in Washington and those at the grass-roots level, continue to do everything we can to keep America moving forward. Too many working families are hurting and too many children are living in poverty for us to simply throw up our hands in despair and retreat.  We know what the Republican agenda will be, and we've got to vigorously oppose it.  

Despite all of their rhetoric, the Republican policies are designed to make the wealthy and larger corporations even richer.  This means tax breaks for those who don't need them, and policies making it easier for corporate America to outsource jobs to low-wage states.  There will also be efforts to rescind the law that will extend health care insurance to millions of uninsured Americans. They will seek to generate opposition to President Obama's pledge to begin reducing our troops in Afghanistan next summer. While the military budget will see no cuts, social programs - from education to Medicaid and Medicare to unemployment compensation - will be slated for large cuts. The Republicans will push legislation to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and they will try to stop every effort to halt and reverse global warming if it interferes with the profits of their friends in the oil and coal industries.

Republican senators and members of Congress who are conservatives today will become even more conservative, by far. They will all be looking over their shoulders at potential Tea Party challenges in the 2012 elections. The belief that government can meet the needs of ordinary Americans - for secure retirements, for oversight that makes food and drugs safe, for regulation that reins in the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street - will be undermined by a harsh and dishonest campaign to portray government as the "enemy" of Americans.

Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allowed huge amounts of corporate money to secretly fund advertisements in the recent election, will likely be supported by every single Republican.  Many will seek to demonize immigrants, gays, and minorities. They will seek to greatly circumscribe a woman's right to choose. And on and on it will go.

job hunting In short, at the very moment when the United States faces huge challenges, the Republicans in Congress will follow the agenda announced by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell: Make sure President Obama cannot be re-elected. Rather than trying to address our severe economic problems - high unemployment rates, reduced wages and income, the outsourcing of American jobs, a housing foreclosure crisis - Republicans will do everything they can to play politics and position themselves for better electoral prospects in 2012. One of the central items on their agenda will be to undermine President Obama through a variety of congressional investigations. I would not be surprised if some of the right-wing extremists in the House pushed for Obama's impeachment on one or another absurd charge.

In the face of this impending Republican onslaught, let me briefly address four issues that are certain to come to the forefront in the very near future.

Should the Bush-era tax cuts for the top 2 percent be extended? At a time when this country has (a) a $13.7 trillion national debt and (b) the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country I disagree with Republicans who believe that we should be providing, over a 10-year period, $700 billion in tax breaks for the wealthiest people in our country. For people earning more than $1 million a year, this would amount to an average tax break of about $100,000 a year. With the top 1 percent already earning 23.5 percent of all income in this country, which is more than the bottom 50 percent makes, that would be morally unfair and economically unwise. 

What should we do with Social Security? Many of my Republican colleagues will be telling you that Social Security "is going bankrupt," that it needs to be privatized or, at the very least, that Social Security benefits should be cut and the retirement age raised to 70.  In my view, this is wrong, wrong, wrong. The Social Security trust fund today has a $2.6 trillion dollar surplus, has not contributed one nickel to our national debt, and can pay out every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 29 years. Social Security has been enormously successful for the last 75 years in its goal of lowering poverty among seniors, the disabled, widows and orphans. Our job must be to strengthen Social Security to make sure that it is there for our kids and grandchildren. One way to do that is to lift the cap on income that is subject to Social Security payroll taxes (now at $106,800) as we did with Medicare.

foreclosuresHow do we create the jobs we need to rebuild the middle class? During the eight years of President Bush, this country lost nearly 5 million manufacturing jobs, contributing to a net loss of over 600,000 private sector jobs. Median family income declined by about $2,200.  Millions of American workers were forced to work longer hours for lower wages, while millions more were driven out of the middle class and into poverty.  The only people who did well under Bush were the very wealthy with almost all new income going to the top 2 percent.  In fact, the top 400 wealthiest families in the country saw their incomes more than double.

Amazingly, my Republican colleagues want to go back to the exact same policies that created this disastrous record.  Despite the fact that we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country, they want to continue "trickle-down economics" and provide more tax breaks for the rich.  Despite the fact that millions of good paying jobs were outsourced to China, India, Mexico and other low wage countries, they want to expand unfettered free trade.  Despite the fact that de-regulation allowed the crooks on Wall Street to sell worthless products and plunge our economy into the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, many of them want to repeal the recently passed financial reform law and allow the huge banks to continue doing anything they want.  Despite the fact that small business is our engine for job growth, almost all Republicans voted against a recently-passed bill which will provide $30 billion in affordable loans to small businesses across the country and provided $12 billion in small business tax relief.  

Needless to say, my views are different.  I will support tax policy which benefits the struggling middle class, not the very rich.  Further, instead of providing tax breaks for millionaires, we should invest in our crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, water systems, broadband, rail and energy, etc.) so that we can create millions of new jobs as we rebuild our country.  I will continue my efforts to reform our trade policy so that we move towards fair trade, not unfettered free trade. American companies need to be reinvesting in the United States, not just China and other low-wage countries.  I will fight for stronger regulation of Wall Street, not weaker.  We must never again be put in the position of having to bail out "too-big-to-fail" financial entities. Instead of providing billions in corporate welfare to large companies, we should increase our support for small businesses that are creating jobs in the United States of America.

What about deficit reduction? Under President Bush the national debt almost doubled because of the war in Iraq, tax breaks for the rich, a Medicare Part D prescription drug bill written by the drug companies and the Wall Street bailout.  None of these initiatives were paid for.  I voted against all of them.  Now, with a $13.7 trillion national debt, my Republican colleagues suddenly have become very concerned about the deficit.  Their solution: major cuts in programs that benefit working families - including Social Security, education, health care and the environment. I disagree.  We must move toward a balanced budget, but we should do it in a way that is fair.  It is absurd that large corporations and wealthy individuals are avoiding about $100 billion a year in taxes by stashing their money in tax havens in the Cayman Islands or Bermuda.  It is wrong that in 2005 one quarter of all large corporations, earning a trillion in revenue, paid nothing in taxes.  It is laughable that last year, while Exxon-Mobil, the most profitable corporation in history, made $19 billion in profits, they not only paid nothing in taxes - they got a $156 million refund from the IRS. Further, we need to take a hard look at waste in all agencies of government - including the Defense Department's $700 billion budget.

These are tough times for our country.  Reintroducing the failed policies of the past will be a disaster for the American middle class. We need ideas and legislation which benefit all Americans, not just those with wealth, power and political influence.