A picture of Senator Bernard Sanders
Bernard S.
Independent VT

About Sen. Bernard
  • Executive Session

    by Senator Bernard Sanders

    Posted on 2013-12-11

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    SANDERS. Mr. President, there is a reason why the favorability rating of the Congress is somewhere, on a good day, around 10 percent. The reason I think is pretty simple: The American people are hurting. They look to their elected officials to try to do something to address the problems they have and the crises facing our country. Time after time, they see the Congress not only not responding to the needs they face but in many cases doing exactly the opposite. In poll after poll, the American people tell us the most pressing issue they face deals with the economy and high unemployment.

    When we look in the newspapers, we are told the official unemployment rate is 7 percent. By the way, that is a rate which has in recent months gone down, and that is a good thing. But the truth is, if you include people who have given up looking for work and people who are working part time when they want to work full time, real unemployment in this country is 13.2 percent. That is enormously high.

    The unemployment rate for our young people is close to 20 percent, and there are parts of the country where it is higher than that. African-American youth unemployment is close to 40 percent.

    So what we are looking at all over this country are millions and millions of people who want jobs, who want to work, and who can't find those jobs. We are looking at a younger generation of workers who cannot get into the economy. If you are a young person and you leave high school, for example, and you can't get a job in your first year out there or your second year, if you think [[Page S8626]] this does not have a cataclysmic impact on your confidence, on your self-esteem, you are very mistaken.

    I fear very much and worry very much about the millions of young people out there who are not in school, who are not working. Tragically, many of those young people will end up on drugs. Some of them are going to end up in jail. These are issues we have to consider.

    What the American people tell us over and over is: Yes, the deficit is a serious problem. I believe it is. Everybody in the Congress believes it is. But what the American people also say is: High unemployment is an even more serious issue.

    According to a March 2013 Gallup poll, 75 percent of the American people, including 56 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of Independents, and 93 percent of Democrats, support ``a Federal job creation law that would spend government money for a program designed to create more than 1 million new jobs.'' What the American people are saying is, yes, we have made progress in the last 4 years. We have cut the deficit in half. We have to do more. But what the American people are saying loudly and clearly is that we need to create jobs.

    What they also understand, and poll after poll indicates this, is that when we have an infrastructure that is crumbling--roads, bridges, water systems, wastewater plants, our rail system--when we have an infrastructure that is crumbling, we need to invest in rebuilding that infrastructure. When we do that, we create significant numbers of jobs. That is what the American people want us to do. When is the last time you even heard that debate here on the floor of the Senate? The unemployment crisis, the need to create jobs--that is what the American people want us to do, and we are not even talking about that issue.

    There is a second issue about which the American people are very clear. It is a funny thing--sometimes the media writes about how partisan the Congress is, how divisive the Congress is. Senator Grassley and I supposedly hate each other, we do not talk to each other, and all that nonsense. That is not the reality. The truth is that among the American people, surprisingly enough, there is a lot of consensus. I mentioned a moment ago that the American people very strongly believe that we should invest in our infrastructure and create jobs. Unfortunately, that is not what we are doing.

    Here is another issue about which the American people are loud and clear. They understand that--tragically in today's economy--most of the new jobs that are being created are not good-paying jobs. That is the sad reality. Most of the new jobs that are being created in today's economy are low wage jobs and many of them are part-time jobs. If you are making $8 or $9 an hour and you are working 30 hours a week, you are going to have a very hard time supporting yourself, let alone a family.

    What do the American people say? They say raise the minimum wage. Raise the minimum wage.

    Let me quote from today's Wall Street Journal: Americans strongly favor boosting the Federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour but oppose raising it above that, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds. In the survey, 63 percent supported a rise to $10.10 an hour from the current $7.25 rate.

    Sixty-three percent of the American people support that. Democrats strongly support it, Independents support it, and many Republicans support it. One would think, therefore, when the vast majority of the American people understand that $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and that we need to raise the minimum wage to at least $10.10 an hour, we would be moving on it. Maybe we would get a UC on it, a unanimous consent. Let's get it done. I fear very much that right here in the Senate we are going to have a very difficult time gaining 60 votes. I hope I am wrong, I sincerely do, but I am not aware at this point that there are any Republicans prepared to support an increase of the minimum wage to $10 an hour. I believe in the Republican-controlled House it would be extremely difficult to get legislation widely supported by the American people through that body.

    But not only will my Republican colleagues not do what the American people want in terms of raising the minimum wage, quite incredibly, I have to tell you that many of my Republican colleagues do not believe in the concept of the minimum wage. Many of them believe we should abolish the concept of the minimum wage, so that if you are in a situation in a high-unemployment area where workers are desperate for work and an employer says: Here is $4 an hour; take it or leave it, that is OK for some of my Republican colleagues.

    Again, we are in a situation where the vast majority of the American people want to do something about low wages. They want to raise the minimum wage, and we are going to have a very difficult time getting that legislation through. I hope I am wrong, but I do know that unless the American people stand up, get on the phone, start calling their Senators and Members of Congress, we probably will not succeed in doing what the American people want.

    Interestingly enough, what the American people also understand is that raising the minimum wage will help us with the Federal deficit in a variety of ways. It may be a surprise to some Americans to know that the largest welfare recipient in the United States of America happens, coincidentally, to be the wealthiest family in America. The Walton family, which owns Walmart, is worth about $100 billion. They are the wealthiest family in America. They own more wealth as one family than the bottom 40 percent of the American people--extraordinary wealth. One of the reasons they are so wealthy is the American taxpayer subsidizes Walmart because Walmart pays low wages, provides minimal benefits, and many of their workers end up on Medicaid, they end up on food stamps, and they end up in government-subsidized housing. I am not quite sure why the middle-class working families of this country have to subsidize the Walton family because they pay wages that are inadequate for their workers to live a dignified life.

    My hope is that when the American people are loud and clear about the need to raise the minimum wage, their Congress will respond, but I have to tell you that I have my doubts.

    What we also hear--and most recently from Pope Francis--is an understanding that there is something profoundly wrong about a nation and increasingly a world in which so few have so much and so many have so little. In the United States of America today we have more wealth and income inequality than at any time since the late 1920s, and we have more wealth and income inequality than any other major country on Earth. Today the top 1 percent of our population owns 38 percent of the wealth of America, financial wealth of this country, and the bottom 60 percent owns 2.3 percent. The top 1 percent owns 38 percent of the wealth of America, and the bottom 60 percent owns 2.3 percent. Is that really what America is supposed to be about? I think not. I think Pope Francis recently talked about that issue. He talked about the moral aspects of that issue. He is exactly right.

    Those are some of the issues we have to talk about.

    Another issue out there that I think we have to be very clear about-- and again the American people are extraordinarily clear about this--the American people understand that Social Security has been probably the most successful Federal program in the modern history of this country. For the last 70-plus years it has kept seniors out of poverty. In fact, before Social Security 50 percent of seniors in this country lived in poverty. Today that number, while too high, is about 9.5 percent. That is a significant improvement. And Social Security, despite what is going on in the economy--in good times and bad times--has never once failed to pay all of the benefits owed to every eligible American.

    Today Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. It can pay every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 20 years. Do you know what the American people say about Social Security? They say it loudly and clearly. Republicans say it, Independents say it, and Democrats say it. Do not cut Social Security. Do not cut Social Security. Yet I have to tell you that virtually all Republicans think we should cut Social Security. Some Democrats believe we should cut Social Security. The President of the United States has talked about a chained CPI--a very bad idea--about cutting Social Security.

    [[Page S8627]] Maybe we should listen to the American people and make it very clear: No, we are not going to cut Social Security. In fact, we are going to take a new look at Social Security and see how we can make it solvent not just for 20 years but for 50 years and in addition to that increase benefits. There are pretty easy ways to do that, including lifting the cap on taxable income that goes into the Social Security trust fund. As you know, today, if somebody makes $100 million and somebody makes $113,000, they both contribute the same amount into the Social Security trust fund. Lift that cap. You can start at $250,000, and you will solve the Social Security solvency issue for the next 50 or 60 years. That is exactly what we should do, and that is what the American people want us to do.

    In terms of Medicare, people say Medicare has financial problems, and it does. The issue--and interestingly enough, it gets back to what Senator Graham was talking about. He was talking about his health care plan in South Carolina. It sounds like a pretty bad plan to me, I agree with him. What is the issue there? The issue we have to look at, which we don't for obvious issues, is how does it happen that in the United States of America--before the Affordable Care Act; things will change a little bit--before the Affordable Care Act, we have 48 million people who are uninsured, we have tens of millions more people who have high deductibles, like Senator Graham--a $6,000 deductible is incomprehensible--and high copayments. At the end of the day, 48 million people uninsured, high deductibles, high copayments, health outcomes that are not particularly good--better than some countries, worse than other countries--infant mortality worse, longevity worse, life expectancy worse, yet we end up spending twice as much per person on health care as any other nation. How does that happen? How do we spend so much and get so little value? Is that an issue we are prepared to discuss? I guess not because the private insure companies say: Don't talk about that. We are making a whole lot of money out of the current health care system, including the Affordable Care Act. We make a lot of money, our CEOs do. Yes, we are spending 30 cents of every dollar on administrative costs, on bureaucracy, on advertising. Don't touch that because that is the American health care system. I suggest we have to take a hard look at what goes on in the rest of the world.

    People have said we have the best health care system in the world. That is not what the American people say. The polls I have seen show that there is less satisfaction with our system than exists in other countries around the world, for obvious reasons. We spend a lot. We get relatively little.

    Are we prepared as a Congress to stand up to the insurance companies? Are we prepared to stand up to the drug companies that charge us far higher prices for prescription drugs than any other country on Earth? Are we prepared to stand up to the medical equipment suppliers? I don't think so because that gets us into the issue of campaign finance, where people get their money to run for office, because these guys contribute a whole lot of money.

    Are we prepared to stand up to Wall Street? We have six financial institutions on Wall Street that have assets of over $9 trillion-- equivalent to two-thirds of the GDP of the United States of America. They write half of the mortgages in this country, two-thirds of the credit cards. Do you think maybe it is time to break up these guys or are we going to march down the path of too big to fail and have to bail them out again? Do you hear a whole lot of discussion about that, Mr. President? No, not too often.

    Let me conclude. We had the president of the World Bank here yesterday talking about global warming. As I think most people know, the entire--well, virtually the entire scientific community, people who study the issue of global warming, understands that the planet is warming significantly, that it is already causing devastating problems, that the issue is manmade, and that if we do not address this crisis by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and moving away from fossil fuels, the habitability of this planet for our kids and our grandchildren will be very much in question. That is what the scientific community says. Have you heard any debate on this floor about how we are going to aggressively transform our energy system? We do not do it.

    Let me conclude by saying this. There is a reason the Congress has a favorability rating of about 10 percent, and that is that the American people are hurting and we are not responding to that pain. We are not addressing the many crises facing this country, and the American people are saying to Congress: What world do you live in? How about joining our world? How about changing your attention to our needs? With that, I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Iowa.

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