"As we move into a new year, I want to take this opportunity to review with Vermonters the ups and downs of this past congressional session, what my office has sought to accomplish and my thoughts about the future. On a personal note, I want to thank the people of our great state for allowing me to represent them in the U.S. Senate and to wish everyone a very happy holiday season and a wonderful new year," Senator Bernie Sanders wrote in a year-end column published by newspapers throughout Vermont.
At a time when the middle class is shrinking and so many working people are struggling to pay their bills, keep their health insurance and make sure their kids get a decent education, it is absolutely imperative that Congress moves this country in a very different direction from where the disastrous policies of the Bush/Cheney administration have taken us. To that end, against ferocious opposition from the White House and Republicans in the Senate, Congress has taken some important steps forward. Clearly, however, much, much more needs to be done.
With poverty increasing and millions of low-wage Americans unable to afford the basic necessities of life, the new Congress was finally able to raise the national minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 over a three-year period. This increase is, in my view, not enough, but it is an important step forward for some of the most desperate families in the country.
As a member of the Senate Veterans Committee, I am proud that we were able to produce the largest increase in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs in the history of that agency. This legislation has since become law and, with proper administration, should result in major improvements in health care and other benefits for our older veterans as well as those recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to combat the very serious problems of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury that Iraq veterans are experiencing, I was able to bring funding into the state to begin an aggressive, proactive outreach program run by the Vermont National Guard and the VA to make sure that Vermont veterans and their families receive all the help they need.
The cost of higher education is soaring and many middle-class families are finding it difficult to pay for college and graduate school. As a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, I worked with Senator Kennedy and others to produce (and eventually pass) the most significant improvement to higher education funding since the GI bill was passed after WWII. This legislation will increase Pell Grants, lower student interest rates and provide debt forgiveness for graduates who work in the public sector or for non-profit organizations. This legislation will make higher education more affordable for millions.
As a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Energy Committee, I am in a good position to represent Vermont and the nation in the fight for sane environmental policies and to do all that we can to address the crisis of global warming. While we have a very long way to go, Congress has begun to reverse some of the horrendous environmental policies of the Bush administration. After 30 years of inaction, we finally raised fuel-efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon for cars driven in the United States. This will save consumers money at the gas pump, help break our dependency on foreign oil and cut down on carbon emissions. The recently passed energy bill will also move this country forward in energy efficiency and sustainable energy. As a member of the Energy Committee, I was able to include in the bill provisions which create an environmental block grant program for states, cities and towns, a similar program for colleges and public schools and a work-force development program which will train many thousands of workers for good paying "green" jobs.
Needless to say, while Congress has made some progress in the last year, major areas of concern were not effectively dealt with. The war in Iraq continues, costing us the astronomical sum of $12 billion per month. With more than 47 million Americans lacking health insurance and costs soaring, our health care system continues to disintegrate. People in Vermont and other northern states will go cold this winter because of the soaring price of home heating fuel, and there is a level of desperation among the poor for food and shelter than we haven't seen for many years. Meanwhile, the richest Americans have never had it so good and the gap between the wealthiest one percent and everyone else is growing wider.
As Vermont's senator, it is my view that Congress must become more forceful in its opposition to President Bush's disastrous policies and more aggressive in fighting for the middle class and an end to the war. If the Republicans in the Senate want to defend the president's policies by filibustering every major piece of legislation, as they have over the last year, then the Democratic leadership should keep the Senate open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Our country is in trouble and the people want a change in direction. We must not fail them.