THE DEFICIT (transcript)

Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, there are a number of huge issues facing our country. Our middle class is collapsing. Poverty is increasing. We are in two wars. We are concerned about global warming, the quality of our education, and massive unemployment. So this country today has its share of serious problems we have to address.

Right now, a whole lot of attention, not inappropriately, is on our very large deficit and a $14 trillion-plus national debt. This is an issue which is perhaps going to come to a head over the next few months as it becomes tied to whether we raise the debt ceiling. I wish to say a few words on this issue.

No. 1, when we talk about deficit reduction, it is important for us to understand how we got to where we are today. How did it happen? How do we have a $1.5 trillion deficit this year, and a $14 trillion-plus national debt? Let's remember that not so many years ago, at the end of President Clinton's tenure, this country had a significant budget surplus and the expectation was that surplus was going to grow in the years to come.

But then a number of things happened during the Bush years. No. 1, we became engaged in two wars. No. 2, we passed a Medicare Part D prescription drug program. No. 3, we bailed out Wall Street. And No. 4, we gave huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country. Then, as a result of the Wall Street-caused recession, revenue dropped, and the result was that we now have a very high deficit and a very large national debt. But it is important to remember how we got to where we are today.

It is also important when we talk about deficit reduction to take a look at American society today in order to determine what is a fair way--a fair way--to address deficit reduction. When we look at American society today, the trends are very clear. The middle class is, in many ways, disappearing as a result of stagnant or, in fact, lowered wages for millions and millions of American workers. Median family income over the last 10 years has gone down by about $2,500. The middle class is hurting. Many millions of Americans, in fact, have left the middle class and entered the ranks of the poor. Poverty is increasing. But at the same time as the middle class is shrinking and poverty is increasing, there is another reality we cannot ignore--or I am afraid many of my colleagues choose to ignore it--and that is that the people on top are doing phenomenally well. Over a recent 25-year period, 80 percent of all new income went to the top 1 percent. The top 1 percent now earns more income than the bottom 50 percent. When we talk about distribution of wealth, we have the top 400 Americans--the 400 wealthiest Americans--owning more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

That gap between the very rich and everybody else is growing wider. It is important to discuss that issue about what is happening to the middle class, to lower income people, and the growing gap between the wealthy and everybody else when we address the issue of deficit reduction.

My Republican colleagues in the House came up with an idea that I think most people almost can't even believe they would pass; it seems so incomprehensible. At a time when the middle class is hurting and things are getting worse as a result of a recession, our Republican colleagues say, Well, what we want to do is move toward deficit reduction by making savage cuts in Medicaid, in education, in infrastructure, in nutrition, in virtually every program that low- and moderate-income Americans depend upon. Furthermore, what we want to do in the House--what they have done--is to end Medicare as we know it, convert it into a voucher program, giving seniors a check for $8,000 and have them go out and get a plan from a private insurance company which clearly will be totally inadequate for most seniors and end up raising their out-of-pocket expenses.

Then when it comes to the wealthiest people who are doing phenomenally well, not only do our Republican colleagues not ask the wealthiest people or the largest corporations to pay one nickel more in taxes to help us with deficit reduction, they come up with this brilliant idea that we are going to give $1 trillion in tax breaks over a 10-year period to the wealthiest people in America. So the rich are getting richer, and they get tax breaks. The middle class is shrinking, and what they are asked to do is to assume huge cuts in programming which will impact them very strongly.

This is clearly the Robin Hood proposal in reverse. We are taking from working families who are hurting and giving it to the wealthiest people who are doing phenomenally well. The Republican plan is clearly absurd, and I think most Americans understand that.

The question is, What will the President do? What will the Democrats do? It is my very strong hope Democrats will be strong on this issue. The President has to be strong on this issue. The President has to go out to the American people and win the support that is there for a deficit reduction package of shared sacrifice. We need to say very clearly to the American people: No, we are not going to move toward deficit reduction solely on the backs of the most vulnerable people in this country. No, we are not going to decimate Medicare so elderly people will not be able to get the health care they need when they are old and sick. No, we are not going to throw millions and millions of people off of Medicaid and endanger families who have their parents in nursing homes. We must have shared sacrifice. The wealthy and large corporations must be involved and contribute toward deficit reduction.

There is a lot of responsibility on the President, but let me make it very clear. I, personally, as a member of the Budget Committee and as a Senator from Vermont, will not be supporting any package that does not call for shared sacrifice.