Vermont Maverick Endorses “Occupy Wall Street” Protests
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) spoke to the nation Thursday, October 6 on a conference phone call organized by the progressive organization Democrats for America (DFA). Though the event was advertised as a discussion on how to keep Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California) from suffering budget cuts in Washington, D.C.’s current mania for deficit reduction, Sanders’ presentation was more wide-ranging than that. He said the cause of the federal budget deficit was “two wars, tax cuts for the rich, the Wall Street bailout and an unfunded Medicare Part D [prescription drug] program,” blasted inequitable trade agreements and the so-called “fast track” procedure used to push them through Congress, and virtually endorsed the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, now in their fourth week in New York and inspiring similar events in other cities.
“This is a pivotal moment in American history,” Sanders said. “The power of big money is extraordinary. The rich and corporations have extreme influence over the Republican Party and significant influence over the Democratic Party. Occupy Wall Street is doing a great job focusing on the most powerful and secretive institution in the country. I’m glad these people are asking why the people on Wall Street, whose power and greed caused this recession, are doing better than ever before.”
Sanders repeated his comment during the 2008 Senate debate on the Wall Street bailout legislation that if banks and other financial institutions are “too big to fail,” then they are too big to be allowed to exist and antitrust laws should be used to break them up. Instead, he said, the opposite has happened. “The six largest financial institutions in America have assets equivalent to 60 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product,” he explained, “and after we bailed out Wall Street, three of the four largest U.S. banks are bigger than they were before. I have introduced legislation to break up these banks.”
The main focus of Sanders’ call was to protect Social Security and Medicare from the budget-cutters who want to raise the eligibility age and slash these programs’ already meager benefits. He specifically attacked the scare-mongers on the Right and in the media that constantly refer to the “crisis” facing Social Security, when the program has enough money to be able to pay all the promised benefits for at least the next 30 years and it would be relatively easy to tweak it to keep it going beyond that.
“Social Security has been enormously successful and accomplished what its founders expected it to,” Sanders said. “Before Social Security 60 percent of U.S. senior citizens lived in poverty; today, 10 percent do. In good times and bad, Social Security has paid out all its promised benefits for 76 years. Our Right-wing friends have hated Social Security from the get-go because it’s an example of a government program that works extremely well. Many of them are honest about it and admit they want people to be forced to go to Wall Street for their retirement security.”
The remedy Sanders is proposing is a partial repeal of the so-called “cap” on the payroll taxes which fund Social Security. Right now, payroll taxes are charged only on the first $106,000 of a person’s income — which makes the tax highly regressive, since people who make less than $106,000 pay a higher percentage of their income in Social Security taxes than people who make more. Sanders’ bill, which has nine Senate co-sponsors, would keep payroll taxes where they are for people making up to $250,000 per year, after which they would pay additional Social Security taxes. According to Sanders, the extra income will keep Social Security financially stable for the next 75 years.
“This was not an original idea with me,” Sanders said. “When Barack Obama ran for president, this is what he campaigned on. We’ve introduced what he campaigned on.”
Sanders also called the proposal to raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 “reprehensible,” saying it would deny coverage for cancer and other catastrophic diseases to people who got them at age 65 or 66. “We’re going to fight to retain Medicare benefits and against raising the retirement age,” Sanders promised. “We have got to protect Medicare and Medicaid as well as Social Security.”
Sanders also commented on President Obama’s jobs bill, saying “I think the President has some good ideas … [but] I would go further. The best way to create jobs is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. We are falling behind China, which is spending nine percent of their gross domestic product on infrastructure. Europe spends five percent, and we spend 2.4 percent.” He also called for the increased development of renewable energy, which will benefit the U.S. in three ways: it will create jobs, it will remove us from dependency on Saudi Arabia and other foreign sources of oil, and it will help control global warming and other human-made climate change.
“It’s wrong to say the way to deal with the deficit is to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick and the poor,” Sanders said. “We need to send that message to the super-committee” — the 12 members of both houses of Congress who are meeting to come up with ways to reduce the budget deficit. “The fair way to end the deficit is to end the tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations,” he explained — “and to take a look at the military budget, which has gone up three times what it was in 1997.”
“The vast majority of Americans are on your side on Social Security and Medicare, but that hasn’t translated to electoral results,” said Sanders’ first questioner, Todd Crickmore of central Indiana. “My question is how do you plan to counter the obstruction you will face as you take your bill to the Senate and the House?”
“What democratic politics is about is making sure you win the majority of people to support the policies that protect their interests,” Sanders replied. “Every House member and Senator has got to understand that the majority of people don’t want to cut Social Security, but to protect it. The most effective way of winning these political struggles is when millions of people engage and write, call and e-mail their members of Congress.”
“I’m a registered Democrat but I’ve given up getting Democrats to answer this question,” said Susan Geddis of Clear Lake, California. “I feel the secret super-committee is un-American if it puts forward a bill to cut Social Security. If they do that, will you filibuster it?”
“I will do everything I can to defeat such a bill,” Sanders said. “When you have rich people making millions while others are suffering, it’s unconscionable to balance the budget on the backs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”
Sanders was also asked about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which vastly increased the capability for corporations to influence elections by spending money. After joking that “our Republican friends [on the Supreme Court] have decided 5-4 that Exxon/Mobil and Goldman Sachs are folks like you and me,” he said that Citizens United only made it easier for Right-wing leaders like Karl Rove to pull rich people together to finance campaigns for Right-wing candidates and issues. He said that if the court doesn’t reverse Citizens United, he would support a Constitutional amendment to repeal it.
One of the most poignant questions Sanders fielded came from Tora, a student at North Carolina Community College who’s about to graduate and is worried there won’t be a job available to her once she finishes school. “We have a lot of young people graduating from college with $25,000, $30,000 or $40,000 in debt with no chance for good-paying jobs,” Sanders replied. “At a time when we need more teachers, states are cutting their own deficits by massively laying off teachers, child-care workers, police and firefighters.” He predicted that the Republicans will be able to block approval of Obama’s jobs bill “unless we mobilize a lot of people” to support it and oppose the likely Republican alternative that will “just give more money to rich people.”
Asked whether President Obama is truly committed to protecting Social Security or will yield to Republican demands to cut it, Sanders said, “There is a lot of disappointment with Obama. In December 2010 I took the U.S. Senate floor for nine hours to say the budget agreement with the Republicans was a disaster. The Republicans got almost everything they wanted. I wanted to double funding for community health centers, and instead we cut $600 million from them. More recently, the Republicans, by threatening to default on the U.S.’s debt obligations for the first time in our history, once again got almost everything they wanted.”
Sanders told the DFA members and others listening to him that the way to fight back against Obama’s history of caving to the Republican Right “is to tell him you helped to elect him, you did the work and gave the money, and not to take you for granted. You have a very important role to tell Obama to keep his promises and not keep giving the Republicans virtually everything they want.”
Asked by Robert Willner of Chatham, New York about Republican efforts to disenfranchise what they consider the “wrong” voters — by requiring voter ID’s to vote, making fewer voting machines and poll workers available in Democratic than in Republican districts, keeping polls open longer in Republican than Democratic areas, and the like — Sanders said, that what the Right-wing governors and state legislatures who are passing these laws are doing is “outrageous beyond belief. They are attacking the very basis of democracy.”Sanders said he’d just asked Willner’s question to a staff member of Attorney General Eric Holder, and he said the answer he got was that they’re fighting this on a state-by-state basis, challenging the most egregious regulations in court. But, he added, he thinks both Obama and Holder need to do more. “They are not raising this issue as it should be raised,” Sanders said. “The Republicans are threatening five million people with the loss of their vote. Right-wing people are using a variety of tactics to attack so-called ‘voter fraud,’ when there is virtually no voter fraud in the U.S. I believe that we have to raise the profile on these outrageous attacks on voters’ rights.”