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Bernard S.
Independent VT

About Sen. Bernard
  • Important Issues Facing Our Country

    by Senator Bernard Sanders

    Posted on 2015-01-07

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    SANDERS. Madam President, as we begin this new session, I think it is important for us to remember why we are here and what our job is as Senators. What our job is, it seems to me, is to try to understand the needs of the American people, the problems facing our constituents, and propose real solutions to those problems. So before we get involved in all of the debates I know we are going to have, let me put on the floor what I believe--in hearing from the people of the State of Vermont--are some of the most important issues facing our country and the need for the Senate, the Congress, and the President to address those issues.

    First and foremost, to my mind, is the state of American democracy. We are a democracy, and men and women have fought and died to preserve American democracy, which means the people of America--not kings, not queens, not an aristocracy but the people of this country--regardless of where they come from or their economic status, have the right to participate in the political process, to elect their leaders and create the future they want for themselves and their kids.

    What is the status of American democracy today? We just came out of a midterm election where Republicans did very well. But I think it is important to understand that in that election--that national election-- 63 percent of the American people didn't vote. Eighty percent of young people didn't vote. The overwhelming majority of low-income and working people didn't vote.

    There are a million reasons an individual doesn't vote, but my guess is that for many people they look at the political process and they say: Yes, my family is hurting. I am working longer hours for lower wages. My job went to China. My kid can't afford to go to college. I can't afford health insurance. What are those people in Washington doing to protect my interest? Not much--not the Republicans, not the Democrats. I am hurting. What are they doing? People say: Hey, I don't want to participate in this process. It doesn't mean anything. I am not going to vote.

    I think another aspect about why people don't vote is they turn on their TVs and they are bombarded with 30-second ugly television ads-- often ads that come not even from the candidate but from people who do ``independent expenditures.'' As a result of the disastrous Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, billionaires, corporations are now allowed to spend unlimited sums of money in a political process. If somebody is a billionaire, they can now spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to destroy other candidates or to elect the candidates they want.

    Is that truly what American democracy is supposed to be about? Do we believe that men and women fought and died for us so billionaires can elect candidates to protect the wealthy and the powerful? I would say at the very top of the agenda for this Congress should be a movement to overturn, through a constitutional amendment, this disastrous Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. In my view, we should move toward public funding of elections so all of our people, regardless of their economic status, can participate in the political process and run for office.

    I think the next issue we have to take a very hard look at is the 40- year decline of the American middle class. I know some of my Republican friends talk about what has happened under the Obama administration, and they are right in saying we are nowhere where we should be economically. No one debates that. But let us not forget where we were 6 years ago when George W. Bush left office. Everybody remembers where we were: 700,000 people a month--a month--were losing their jobs.

    People say: Hey, we are growing 200,000 or 300,000 jobs a month now, not good enough. Right, it is not good enough, but growing 200,000 or 300,000 jobs a month is a heck of a lot better than losing 700,000 jobs a month.

    Our financial system--the U.S. and the world's--was on the verge of financial collapse. That is where we were when Bush left office. Now Wall Street is doing very well.

    In terms of our deficit, when Bush left office we had a $1.4 trillion deficit. Now that deficit is somewhere around $500 billion. Are we where we want to be? No. Are we better off than we were 6 years ago? Absolutely.

    But when we look at the middle class today, we understand the problems are not just the last 6 years or the last 12 years. The problems are what has been going on over the last 40 years. The fact is, we have millions of working people who are earning, in real inflation-accounted dollars, substantially less than they were 40 years ago.

    How does it happen, when we are seeing an explosion in technology, when worker productivity has gone up, that the median male worker--that male worker right in the middle of the economy--earns $783 less last year than he made 41 years ago? Look at why people are angry. That is why they are angry. In inflation-accounted-for dollars, the median male worker is making $783 less last year than he made 41 years ago. The median woman worker made $1,300 less last year than she made in 2007.

    Since 1999, the median middle-class family has seen its income go down by almost $5,000 after adjusting for inflation. So people all over this country look to Washington and they say: What is going on? You gave us this great global economy. You have all these great unfettered free-trade agreements. We have all this technology. Yes, I know the billionaires are getting richer, millionaires are getting richer, with 95 percent of all new income going to the top 1 percent. We have one family, the Walton family, now owning more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans. Yes, the billionaires are doing great, but what is happening to me? What is happening to the middle class? The answer is, for a variety of reasons, in the last 40 years the middle class has shrunk significantly. Today we have more people living in poverty than at almost any other time in American history, and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth.

    So what do we do? What do we do to rebuild the middle class? What do we do to create the millions of decent-paying jobs we need? Let me throw out a few suggestions that I hope in this session of Congress we will address.

    For a start, everybody in America understands our infrastructure is collapsing--no great secret. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, nearly one-quarter of the Nation's 600,000 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, and more than 30 percent have exceeded their design life.

    What that means is that all over this country bridges are being shut down because they are dangerous and they need repair, almost one third of America's roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 42 percent of major urban highways are congested. As we speak, in cities all over America people are backed up in traffic jams, burning fuel and wasting time because we don't have proper infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers says we must invest $1.7 trillion by 2020--5 years-- just to get our Nation's roads, bridges, and transit to a state of good repair--more than four times the current rate of spending.

    [[Page S37]] So what happens when we invest in infrastructure? I will introduce legislation to invest $1 trillion in rebuilding our roads, bridges, water systems, wastewater plants, aquifers, older schools, and rail. When we do that, $1 trillion in infrastructure investment not only makes our country more productive and efficient, but it also creates a substantial number of decent-paying jobs. A $1 trillion investment would maintain and create 13 million decent-paying jobs. The fastest way to create good-paying jobs is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. In my view, that should be a very, very high priority for this Congress.

    The second issue I think we need to address--and I understand there are differences of opinion on this issue. I think when our kids and our grandchildren look back on this period and they look at an issue such as the Keystone Pipeline, they will be saying: What were you people thinking about? How could you go forward in terms of increasing the exploration and production of some of the dirtiest oil on this planet when virtually all of the scientists were telling us that we have to substantially reduce carbon emissions and not increase carbon emissions? In my view, an important mission of this Congress is to listen to the science and the scientific community. They are telling us loudly and clearly that climate change is real, climate change is caused by human activity, climate change is already causing devastating problems in America and around the world in terms of drought, in terms of flooding, in terms of extreme weather disturbances, and we have to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel and into energy efficiency, into weatherization, into wind, into solar, into geothermal, and into other sustainable energies. When we do that, we not only lead the world in reversing climate change, but we also create a significant number of jobs.

    In this last election, interestingly enough in some of the most conservative States in America, voters voted to raise the minimum wage because they understand that a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour--here in Washington, DC, the Federal minimum wage--is literally a starvation wage. No family, no individual can live on $7.25 an hour. I applaud all those fast food workers all over this country--people who work at McDonald's and Burger King--for having the courage to go out on the streets and say: We have to raise the minimum wage. I applaud their courage in doing that, and I applaud the many States around this country, including the State of Vermont, who have raised the minimum wage. In my view, if someone works 40 hours a week, they should not be living in poverty. I hope that one of the major priorities in this Congress is to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. Over a period of years, I would raise that minimum wage to $15 an hour.

    It is also unacceptable that in America today women who do the same work as men earn 78 cents on the dollar compared to male workers. I think we have to address this discrimination, and we need to move forward with pay equity for women workers.

    When we talk about the decline of the American middle class and the fact that millions of workers are working longer hours for lower wages, when we talk about the fact that in the last 14 or so years this country has lost 60,000 factories and millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs--when we put that issue on the table, we begin the discussion which is long, long overdue about our trade policies. That is what we have to talk about. The truth of the matter is that from Republican leadership in the White House to Democratic leadership in the White House, there has been support for a number of trade policies which, when looking at the cold facts, have failed. NAFTA has failed. CAFTA has failed. Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China--PNTR-- has failed. Over the last 30 years, Republican Presidents and Democratic Presidents have continued to push unfettered free trade agreements which say to American workers: Guess what. You are now going to be competing against somebody in China who makes $1.50 an hour. If you don't like it, we are going to move our plant to China.

    And many companies have done exactly that. Do we think that is fair? Do we think that is right? I don't.

    We are going to be coming up with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, TPP. Without going into great detail at this point, I have very, very serious problems with that agreement. In terms of the process, no Member of this Congress has been able to walk into the office where these documents--highly complicated legal documents--are held, bring staff in there, and copy the information. We are not allowed to do that, but we are supposed to vote on a fast-track agreement to give the President the authority to negotiate that agreement. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

    So I hope we use the TPP as an opportunity to rethink our trade agreements. Trade is a good thing, but American workers should not suffer from unfettered free trade. Trade should be used to benefit the middle class and working families of this country and not just the multinational corporations.

    We live in a highly competitive global economy. Everybody understands that. I think we also understand that our young people are not going to do well and our economy does not do well unless our people have the education they need to effectively compete in this global economy. It saddens me to note that a number of years ago the United States of America led the world in terms of the percentage of people who had college degrees. We were number one. Today we are number 12. The reason is that the cost of college has soared at the same time that the income of many middle-class and working-class people has declined. We are in a position now where hundreds of thousands of young people thinking about their future look at the cost of college, look at the debt they will incur when they leave college, and they are saying: I don't want to go to college. I am not going to go to college. I am not going to get post-high school education. That is a very bad thing for this country. It is a bad thing for our economy. We should put high up on the agenda the issue of how in America all of our people, regardless of the income of their families, can get the education they need without going deeply in debt. This issue of college indebtedness is a horror.

    I remember a few months ago talking to a young woman in Burlington, VT, who left medical school $300,000 in debt. Her crime was that she wanted to become a doctor and work with low-income people. She shouldn't be punished with a debt of $300,000. Other people are graduating college $50,000 in debt. And graduate school--we have attorneys in my office who have a debt of over $100,000. We can do better than that as a nation.

    Those are some of the issues. There are others out there. But I think what is most important is that we try to listen to where the American people are today--to the pain of a declining middle-class, to single moms desperately struggling to raise their kids with dignity, to older people trying to retire with a shred of dignity.

    On that issue, let me be very clear. If there is an attempt going to be made here in the Senate to cut Social Security or to cut Medicare, there will be at least one Senator fighting vigorously on that. Poverty among seniors is going up. Millions of seniors in this country are trying to make it on $12,000, $13,000, $14,000 a year. The last thing we should be talking about is cutting Social Security. In fact, we should be talking about expanding Social Security.

    There are a lot of issues out there. I hope we don't get lost in the weeds. I hope we focus on those issues that are major concerns to the American people. I hope very much that we have the courage to stand up to the very, very wealthy campaign contributors and their lobbyists who have enormous influence over what takes place here, and that we in fact represent the people who sent us here who are overwhelmingly middle- class and working-class people.

    Madam President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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