Floor Statement by Sen. Bernard Sanders on the Introduction of the National Priorities Act

Mr. President, this month the Senate will begin its deliberations on the Fiscal Year 2008 Budget Resolution. It is my strong belief that this Senate must pass a budget that will expand the shrinking middle class, reduce the enormous gap between the rich and the poor, keep our promises to our nation's veterans, reduce our record-breaking national debt and lower the poverty rate. In my opinion, the best way to accomplish these goals is to repeal the President's tax breaks for the wealthiest one percent, eliminate waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon and use this revenue for the many unmet needs of this country. The bill that I am introducing today, the National Priorities Act will accomplish these vital goals. A budget, after all, is more than just a long list of numbers. It is a statement of our values and priorities. It's about taking a hard look at the needs of our people and prioritizing the budget in an intelligent and rationale way. Mr. President, what is the state of the American economy? Let's take a look: Since President Bush has been in office, more than 5 million Americans have slipped into poverty, including over one million children. Not only does the United States have the highest rate of poverty of any major country in the industrialized world, we also, shamefully, have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Mr. President, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the childhood poverty rate is nearly 18%. According to data from the Luxembourg Income Study Group, the childhood poverty rate in the U.S. is even higher: 21.9%. How are other countries doing on poverty? In Germany, the childhood poverty rate is 9%; in France, it's 7.9%; in Austria, it's 6.7%; in Sweden, it's 4.2%; in Norway, it's 3.4%; and in Finland, the childhood poverty rate is only 2.8%. And, while Britain made a commitment to end child poverty in its country and has reduced the child poverty rate by over 20 percent since 1999, child poverty in the United States increased by about twelve percent over the same time period. Mr. President, let's look at health care. While health care costs are soaring, the number of Americans without health insurance rose to a record high of 46.6 million in 2005, an increase of 6.8 million since 2000. While the President continues to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, the lack of health insurance kills many more Americans each year than September 11th and Katrina combined. In fact, the National Academy of Science estimates that 18,000 Americans die each year because they have no health insurance. Healthcare isn't just a human rights issue, it isn't just a moral issue, it is an economic issue as well. Small businesses cannot survive if they are forced to pay huge increases in healthcare premiums each and every year. Even large businesses like General Motors and Ford are struggling like they have never struggled before to pay for the healthcare of their employees. Right now, we spend twice as much per person on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet we have a lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality rate than Canada, Japan and most of Europe. In fact, the United States is the only country in the industrialized world that does not have a national health care system. In addition to our health insurance crisis, we also have a dental crisis. The Surgeon General has reported that tooth decay has become the single most common chronic childhood disease - five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever; Surveys have shown that dental problems cause children to miss more than 51 million hours of school and adults to miss more than 164 million hours of work each year. In terms of education, millions of middle class American families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford the escalating cost of a college education with average tuition and other costs increasing by more than $4,300 at four-year public universities and over $8,000 at four-year private colleges since 2001. Amazingly, child care fees today are higher than college tuition at a four year public university in 42 states in this country. Last year, 35 million people in America, the richest country on the face of the earth, struggled to put food on the table. And, the Agriculture Department recently reported that the number of the poorest, hungriest Americans keeps rising. Mr. President, we have crisis in affordable housing in which millions of working Americans are paying 50 to 60 percent of their limited incomes to put a roof over their heads; while other families are sleeping in their cars or in fact out on the street. Last year, there were 1.2 million home foreclosures in this country, an increase of 42 percent since 2005. The cost of energy has rapidly risen since President Bush has been in office. Oil prices have more than doubled and gasoline prices have gone up by 70 percent since January of 2001. This is putting a real strain on the paychecks of working people- especially in rural states like Vermont where workers are often forced to drive long distances to their jobs. In America today millions of American workers are working longer hours for lower wages and median income for working-age families has declined for five years in a row. Today, incredible as it may seem the personal savings rate is below zero which has not happened since the Great Depression. In other words, all over this country working people and people in the middle-class are purchasing groceries and other basic necessities and, in the process are going deeper and deeper in debt. Over the past six years, we have lost three million manufacturing jobs, including 10,000 in my State of Vermont. Many of the new jobs that are available to those displaced workers pay lower wages and have lower benefits. Today, 3 million fewer American workers have pension coverage than when President Bush took office and half of private-sector American workers have no pension coverage whatsoever. Throughout our country American workers, who now work the longest hours of any other people in the industrialized world, are finding it harder and harder to get jobs which provide them with a decent amount of vacation time. Mr. President, while the middle class is shrinking and poverty is increasing in our country, there is another reality that is taking place. And that is that the wealthiest 1%, the people at the very top of the economic ladder, have never had it so good since the 1920s. According to Forbes Magazine, the collective net worth of the richest 400 Americans increased by $120 billion last year to $1.25 trillion. The 400 wealthiest Americans are worth $1.25 trillion. Sadly, Mr. President, the United States today has the most unfair distribution of wealth and income of any major country and the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else is growing wider. Today, the wealthiest 13,000 families in America own nearly as much income as the bottom 20 million and the wealthiest one percent own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. According to a December 2006 report by the Congressional Budget Office, the average after-tax income of the richest one percent of households rose from $722,000 in 2003 to $868,000 in 2004, after adjusting for inflation, a one-year increase of nearly $146,000, or 20 percent. This represents the largest increase in 15 years, measured both in percentage terms and in real dollars. The rich are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. Mr. President, I've given this outline of the economy in order to place the debate about the budget in context. The question, then becomes, what do we do? The President has given us his answer. He has told us in his budget that we don't have enough money to meet the health care needs of this country - so his response is to inadequately fund the Children's Health Insurance Program; and to cut Medicare and Medicaid by $280 billion over the next decade. We don't have enough money for our veterans, so the President's response has been to deny an estimated one million veterans access to health services at the VA. We don't have enough money for child care, so the President's response is to reduce the number of children receiving child care assistance by 300,000. We don't have enough money for dental care. We don't have enough money for special education. We don't have enough money to seriously address global warming. We don't have enough money to make sure that qualified students have access to a quality education without going deeply into debt. We don't have enough money to fully fund Head Start. We don't have enough money to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. But, somehow, the President believes that we have enough money to provide $70 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent and we don't have to worry about reforming waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon. These upside down priorities have got to stop. The bill that I am introducing today will begin to turn our national priorities right side up. The National Priorities Act will repeal tax breaks for the wealthiest one percent in 2008; and eliminate $60 billion in waste fraud and abuse at the Pentagon and use this money to do the following: 1. Provide health care services for over four million Americans by increasing investments in Federally Qualified Centers and the National Health Service Corps by $625 million. 2. Expand access to dental care by providing $140 million for the workforce, capital and equipment needed to establish or expand oral health services at community health centers (and other community-based sites) across the country. 3. Provide health insurance to over eight million children who aren't covered by expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program by $15 billion. 4. Make sure that all veterans receive the health care and other benefits they were promised without being put on a waiting list. 5. Ensure that working families with children have access to affordable child care by increasing investments in the Child Care Development Block Grant by $2.2 billion. 6. Allow every qualified child to receive early education, nutrition and health services by fully funding Head Start. 7. Lower property taxes by keeping the federal commitment to provide 40% of the cost of special education costs for about 7 million children with disabilities. 8. Provide an additional 330,000 students with Pell Grants and increase its purchasing power for over 5.4 million other students by doubling the maximum Pell Grant. 9. Instill low-income high school students with the skills and opportunity they need to go to college by increasing the TRIO and GEAR-Up education programs by 50%. 10. Create more than 200,000 jobs by increasing investments in renewable energy, energy efficient appliances, public transit, and high-speed rail. 11. Create 180,000 jobs by constructing, preserving and rehabilitating at least 150,000 affordable housing rental units. 12. Reduce taxes between $400 to $1,134 per year for 10 million American workers and families with children by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. 13. Reduce the deficit by $30 billion. In other words, Mr. President, the bill that I am introducing today says that the former CEO of Home Depot who recently received a $210 million golden parachute, does not need another tax cut. It is more important to substantially increase financial aid for low and middle class families so that every American, regardless of income, can receive a college education. This legislation says to the former CEO of Pfizer who received a $200 million compensation package, sorry, you can do without another tax break. It is more important to substantially increase funding for child care so that working families can find affordable and quality care for their children. This legislation says to the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil, who managed to get a $400 million retirement package, your tax break is rescinded. Instead, we will keep our promises to the veterans of this country who now find themselves on waiting lists to get the health care they need. Mr. President, if, as a nation, we are serious about addressing the long neglected needs of the working people of this country and creating a more egalitarian society, we have got to invest more federal resources in education, health care, housing, infrastructure, sustainable energy as well as many other areas. We also have to reduce our national debt. Given that reality, Congress must develop the courage to stand up to the big money interests and roll-back the tax breaks for the wealthiest one percent, eliminate waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon and demand that the wealthy and powerful rejoin American society.

To hear the full floor speech click here.

To read the press release click here.

To read the National Priorities Fact Sheet click here.

Click here for a copy of the bill.