Bernie Sanders, an Independent, is Vermont's junior senator
October 28th, 2013 5:54 PM
As a member of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, I am more than aware that a $17 trillion dollar national debt and a $700 billion deficit are serious problems that must be addressed.
But I am also aware that real unemployment is close to 14 percent, that tens of millions of Americans are working for horrendously low wages, that more Americans are now living in poverty than ever before and that wealth and income inequality in the United States is now greater than in any other major country -- with the gap between the very rich and everyone else growing wider and wider.
Further, when we talk about the national budget, it is vitally important that we remember how we got into this fiscal crisis in the first place and who was responsible for it. Let us never forget that when Bill Clinton left office in January of 2001, the U.S. had a budget surplus of $236 billion with projected budget surpluses as far as the eye could see. During that time, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projected a 10-year budget surplus of $5.6 trillion, enough to erase the entire national debt by the end of 2011.
What happened? How did we, in a few short years, go from a large budget surplus into horrendous debt? The answer is not that complicated. Under President Bush we went to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and didn't pay for them. We just put them on the credit card. The cost of those wars is estimated to be between $4 trillion to $6 trillion. Further, Bush and Congress passed an expensive prescription drug program that was unpaid for. They also reduced revenue by giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy and large corporations. On top of all that, the Wall Street collapse and ensuing recession significantly reduced tax receipts and increased spending for unemployment compensation and food stamps, further exacerbating the deficit situation.
Interestingly, the so-called congressional "deficit hawks" -- Congressman Paul Ryan, Senator Jeff Sessions and other conservative Republicans -- all voted for those measures that increased the deficit. These are the same folks who now want to dismantle virtually every social program designed to protect working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor. In other words, it's okay to spend trillions on a war we should never have waged and large defense budgets, and provide huge tax breaks for billionaires and multi-national corporations. It's just not okay when, in very difficult economic times, we try to protect the most vulnerable people in our country.
Where do we go from here? How do we now draft a federal budget which creates jobs, makes our country more productive, protects working families and lowers the deficit?
For a start, we have to understand that, from both a moral and economic perspective, we cannot impose more austerity on the people of our country who are already suffering. The time is now for the wealthy and multi-national corporations who are doing phenomenally well to help us rebuild America and lower our deficit.
At a time when the richest 1 percent own 38 percent of the financial wealth of America, while the bottom 60 percent own a mere 2.3 percent -- we cannot balance the budget on the backs of people who have virtually nothing. When 95 percent of all new income during 2009 through 2012 went to the top 1 percent, while tens of millions of working Americans saw a decline in their income, we cannot cut programs that these workers depend upon.
Instead of talking about cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, we must end the absurdity of one out of four corporations in America not paying a nickel in federal income taxes. At a time when multi-national corporations and the wealthy are avoiding more than $100 billion a year in taxes by stashing money in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, we need to make them pay taxes just like middle-class Americans. The truth of the matter is that according to the most recent information available profitable corporations are only paying 13 percent of their income in federal taxes which is near a 40-year low.
While in January 2013, we successfully ended Bush's tax breaks for the richest 1 percent, the truth is that they continue to exist for the top 2 percent, those households earning between $250,000 and $450,000 a year. That must end.
At a time when we now spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on defense, we can afford to make judicious cuts in our military without compromising our military capabilities.
Frankly, it is time that Congress started listening to the ordinary people. Recently, the Republican Party learned a hard lesson when the American people stated loudly and clearly that it was wrong to shut down the government and not pay our bills because some extreme right-wing members of Congress do not like the Affordable Care Act. Well, there's another lesson that my Republican colleagues are going to have to absorb. Poll after poll make it very clear that the American people overwhelmingly do not want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In fact, according to a recent National Journal poll, 81 percent of the American people do not want to cut Medicare at all; 76 percent of the American people do not want to cut Social Security at all; and 60 percent of the American people do not want to cut Medicaid at all. Meanwhile, other polls have made it very clear that at a time of growing income and wealth inequality, Americans believe that the wealthiest among us and large corporations must pay their fair share in taxes.
It is time to develop a federal budget which is moral and which makes good economic sense. It is time to develop a budget which invests in our future by creating jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure improvement and expanding educational opportunities. It is time for those who have so much to help us with deficit reduction. It is time that we listen to what the American people want, and not just respond to the billionaire class and major campaign contributors.