ICYMI - Senator Sanders Press Conference on Friday, January 16, 2015
Senator Sanders had his first press conference as Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee on January 16, 2015.
Senator Sanders: Thanks very much for coming.
I am very excited to be the ranking member of the Budget Committee and look forward to working with Chairman Mike Enzi, somebody I've known for many years, to work in those areas where we can come up with agreement.
Let me begin by saying that a budget, whether it is a family budget or the budget of the United States of America, is about priorities. And when we do the budget of the United States, it is imperative that we take a hard look at the problems facing our country, what, in fact, is going on in our country and how we can best address the problems.
Within that context, I must say that the budget passed last year by the Republican House, the so-called Ryan budget, which called for massive cuts in Medicare, ending Medicare as we know it, massive cuts in Medicaid, education, nutrition, affordable housing, and many other programs impacting the lives of working Americans, while at the same time providing huge tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations, is a budget approach which moves us in exactly the wrong direction.
And, needless to say, if the Republicans bring up a budget based on the same principles that the Ryan budget was based on, I will do everything I can to oppose that effort.
When we look at a budget, when we prepare a budget, it's imperative that we take a hard look at the reality of American life, and that we build based on that reality.
And here, briefly, to my mind, is what reality in America today is about. While the economy in the last six years has made significant gains, the simple truth is that the American middle class has been declining over the last 40 years. I think most American workers understand that.
Today, at a time when the wealthy and large corporations are doing phenomenally well, median family income is nearly $5,000 less than it was in 1999. The median male worker, that male worker right in the middle of the economy, half above, half below, unbelievably, in inflation-accounted-for dollars, made $783 less last year than he did 41 years ago.
The median female worker, that woman right in the middle of the economy, made $1,337 less last year than she did in 2007.
In terms of unemployment, real unemployment, including those people who have given up looking for work and those people who are working part time when they want to work full time, it is not 5.6 percent, it is 11.2 percent.
Youth unemployment is 16.8 percent. African-American youth unemployment is over 30 percent.
And everybody knows, whether it is Vermont, California, or anyplace else, that we have millions of people today who are working longer hours for lower wages, despite an explosion in technology and productivity.
And, meanwhile, in the midst of this collapsing middle class, the people on top are doing extraordinarily well and large corporations are enjoying record-breaking profits.
So when you look at a budget, it is imperative that you looked at the overarching reality of American life.
And today when we look at America, we have to understand that we have an obscene level of income and wealth inequality, the highest of any majority on Earth and worse in America today than at any time since 1929.
Today, the top one-tenth of one percent -- one-tenth of one percent own nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. One-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. One family, the Walton family of Walmart, owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent. In terms of income, the latest figures that I have since is that since the Wall Street crash, 95 percent of all new income goes to the top one percent. That is where we are as a nation. And when we prepare a budget, those are the realities, in my view, that we should be looking at.
Further, in terms of senior citizens, what we know today is that the elderly poverty rate has gone up to 9.5 percent. And incredible as it may sound, 20 percent of seniors live on an average income of $7,600 a year. I'm not quite sure, to be honest with you, how anybody lives on $7,600 a year, but we have 20 percent of seniors who live at that level.
At a time when the average Social Security benefit is less than $1,300 a month, one-third of the seniors living in this country depend on Social Security for almost all of their income -- $1,300 a month. In fact, two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security for more than half of their income.
So this is where we are today. Middle class declining, millions of seniors struggling to pay their food, their medicine and their heat. And what do the Republicans do in the House of Representatives on their very first day of the new session? What do they do? On that very first day, Republicans in the House made a change in its rules that could lead to a 20 percent cut in Social Security Disability benefits for 11 million Americans, including two million children, over a million veterans and over 150,000 surviving spouses.
In other words, in the midst of massive wealth and income inequality, the Republicans on their very first day of the new session want to make massive cuts in a program that benefits some of the most vulnerable people in this country -- people with disabilities.
Today, the Social Security Trust Fund has about $2.8 trillion, which can pay out every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 18 years. Historically, when one of the funds, Social Security Trust Funds, has run out of money to pay 100 percent of promised benefits, money has been re-allocated to the other fund. This is not a new idea.
Over the years, it has been done in a bipartisan way with very little fanfare. It is not a big deal. In fact, this has occurred 11 times, including four times under President Ronald Reagan. And clearly, that is what we should be doing now.
Let's be clear and understand what the Republican plan is. What they are saying is that either there will be cuts to the disability program, that's a 20 percent cut, if that fund is not replenished, or, if the fund is replenished, that money will have to come from cuts to Social Security retirement benefits, in other words, the benefits that seniors in this country depend upon.
And House Budget Chairman Tom Price is already talking about including Social Security cuts in the budget resolution that his committee will be writing.
Needless to say, that is totally unacceptable to me and totally unacceptable to the American people. When we talk about Social Security today, what we should be talking about is expanding benefits, not cutting benefits. And I and members of the Senate are working on legislation to do just that.
And, at a time when multimillionaires pay the same amount of money into the Social Security trust fund as somebody making $118,000, the cap on taxable income must be raised.
Let's be clear: The Social Security disability program is an insurance program that guarantees income to workers who become permanently disabled and can no longer work. And virtually every American worker pays into that insurance program.
Many who receive, by the way, this program, disability program, are terminally ill. Nearly 20 percent of all Americans who receive disability benefits die within a five-year period of being approved.
Now, let me just touch on a few other issues that a serious budget will look at and that I and my colleagues on the Democratic side will look at.
Today, some of the most profitable corporations and the wealthiest Americans in this country are avoiding $100 billion a year in taxes by stashing their cash in the Cayman Island, Bermuda and other off-shore tax havens.
If we are serious about dealing with the massive problems facing our country, this is an issue that must be addressed, and certainly addressed before we talk about cutting programs for the elderly and the children.
Today, as a result of the carried interest loophole, there are hedge fund managers making tens and tens of millions of dollars a year in income who pay an effective tax rate lower than a nurse or a firefighter. That has got to change.
Today, we have defense contractors who produce weapon systems with multibillion dollar cost overruns, time and time again. That has got to change.
Today, we have large corporations like Walmart, who pay their workers so low wages that many of their workers are forced to go on government programs like Medicaid, food stamps and affordable housing, to get by. And that is why we have got to raise the minimum wage, so that companies like Walmart and Burger King and McDonald's are not huge recipients of corporate welfare.
So there are a lot of issues out there.
Once again, I look forward to working with Chairman Enzi where we have common ground, but I think there are going to be some fundamental disagreements, especially if my Republican colleagues want to be cutting Social Security.
Thank you very much.
Any questions? Yes?
Reporter: Senator, what can you do to push this agenda?
Senator Sanders: Right. Great question. I'll tell you what is at our disposal.
What's at our disposal is the knowledge -- is the knowledge that the vast majority of the American people do not believe that when the middle class is disappearing, and we have more people living in poverty than almost any time in our history, they do not believe that you give huge tax breaks to the rich and large corporations and cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
And what our job is is to rally the American people. And I do want to tell you that we are going to be extremely aggressive in the social media. We are gonna be reaching out to senior organizations, to veterans organizations.
I am the former chair of the Veterans Committee, and I will tell you that the veterans organizations do not believe in, among other things, a chained CPI, which not only will make significant cuts in benefits, cost of living adjustment benefits for seniors, but also for disabled vets.
And our job is to put together large coalitions at the grassroots level of seniors, of veterans, of women, who are more significantly impacted by Social Security than men, by disabled groups of -- groups of people with disabilities, and we're gonna rally them.
Reporter: The president a couple of years ago had a (inaudible) and work around Democrats (inaudible).
Senator Sanders: It is my understanding that the chained CPI will not be in the president's budget. Yes, sir?
Reporter: Are you speaking with the White House about some of these issues, because there's a lot of talk about tax reform and trade, where they do plan working with the Republicans.
Senator Sanders: Well, obviously, they do plan on working with the Republicans. I work -- plan on working with Republicans. That's what we should be doing. But it depends exactly on the issue and what the proposal is.
Reporter: And are you in discussions with the White House?
Senator Sanders: Yes. Ma'am?
Reporter: In terms of repatriation, bringing money from overseas, can you talk about parameters?
Senator Sanders: Well, I don't want to get into all of the details right now. I think clearly the goal is to end this outrageous loophole. I mean, here you have Republicans saying, OK, I think that when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, almost 20 percent of our kids living in poverty, we're gonna cut programs for children. Oh, but, by the way, it is OK for corporations to stash their money in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying taxes.
Senator Sanders: I don't think they should, and we have legislation in to do away with that.
Now, I am more than familiar with the proposal you are talking about, and you've got to see the details. But my own view is, basically, you've got to end that loophole, period. Yeah?
Reporter: Do you expect yourself and other Senate Democrats to introduce legislation to reallocate funding within the Social Security trust fund to deal with the disability exhaustion of funds.
Senator Sanders: I believe that we will. And that is -- I mean, it's almost such a simple proposal. It's been done all of the times; it's the way that things have been done. And we're certainly prepared to do that, absolutely.
Reporter: Do you anticipate (inaudible) comprehensive Democratic budget (inaudible)?
And, secondly, once we go through the budget exercise, and (inaudible) a deadlock (inaudible)?
Senator Sanders: I don't know what will happen, and I don't want to speculate.
In terms of your first question, it is being discussed. I think most members in the Democratic Caucus think that what we should focus on are basic principles, rather than writing a very long budget.
Now, it's -- it's gonna be their budget, not ours. And our time may be better spent doing other things. Yes, ma'am?
Reporter: But what would be the strategy to you going forward on health care?
Senator Sanders: Well, you know, that's a big question. I mean, I voted for the ACA and I think the fact that we have fewer people uninsured today than we have had in the past, by about 10 million, I think, ACA's covered 10 million. I think it has played a role in bringing down the increase in health care inflation is significant.
So I think a lot of good things in the ACA. I think there are things that are not so good, and I think we have to work to improve it.
But if anyone thinks that they're gonna throw 10 million people off of health insurance, needless to say they will face vigorous opposition. Yes, ma'am?
Reporter: (inaudible) I'm wondering if you think (inaudible) a little bit more about who's in (inaudible).
Senator Sanders: I think Senator Murray did a very, very good job. Looks like my destiny in life is to keep following her. She was head of the Veterans Committee and moved on.
And we will do what we will do, and we have a close relationship with the Democratic leadership.
I think the real issue is that this country faces enormous problems today in terms of a declining middle class, in terms of high unemployment, in terms of millions of people who today are struggling to figure out how they're gonna pay their rent and put food on the table.
And what our committee must do is address the needs of working families and the middle class and not just the wealthy and the large corporations who make huge amounts of campaign contributions, which has been the case for a number of years.
Maybe just one or two more questions, if there are. Ma'am?
Senator Sanders: Well, you know, Mike and I are on the HELP Committee, among other things. So we -- you know, I like Mike and I think we get along just fine.
Obviously, we have very different views on the world. I know he has picked the short-end of the straw. He worked with Senator -- with Senator Kennedy for many years, and now he's got me. But I like Mike and we'll work together as best we can. We just met last week, actually. Yes, ma'am?
Reporter: Tom Price has floated this idea of eliminating the firewall between the nondefense side and defense side sequester.
Senator Sanders: Right. Right.
Reporter: And he'd like to see the sequestration (inaudible). What would you like to see done...
Senator Sanders: Why am I shocked that that would be -- in addition to wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare as we know it, cut Medicaid, cut education, cut nutrition programs for hungry kids, their other brilliant idea is to increase military spending at a time when we spend more money than almost the rest of the world combined.
I mentioned in my remarks briefly, and something we'll get into at greater length in the next several months, is there -- no one denies that there's huge amounts of waste within the Department of Defense, that time after time you have these contractors coming in, promising to do a weapons system for X dollars, and coming billions and billions of dollars higher, with huge cost overruns.
So, no. To answer your question, the idea that we would allow for significantly more spending in defense at the same time as they want to cut education and nutrition and health care, to me is something that the vast majority of the American people do not agree with. I certainly don't.
All right. Well, thank you all very, very much. Look forward to working with you.