The Senate Budget Committee’s new chair is an unabashed progressive and self-described democratic socialist prepared to be as “aggressive” as he possibly can with budget tactics to help Democrats and President-elect Joe Biden enact their sweeping agenda.
Under a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, Bernie Sanders will oversee budget and spending work, including the procedural power of budget reconciliation the majority can use to evade the filibuster and pass massive bills without a single Republican vote.
During a 15-minute interview on Tuesday, the Vermont Independent pledged to use the tactic to spend billions of dollars to help stop the spread of coronavirus and strengthen the economy, while leaving the door open to a separate reconciliation package focused on job creation, infrastructure, housing, clean energy and health care.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your vision for the upcoming year? How do you plan to approach the job of Senate Budget chair?
It is absolutely imperative that the Congress not lose sight of the fact that working families in this country are facing more economic distress today than at any time during the Great Depression. What Congress has got to show the American people is that … it can handle more than one crisis at a time.
While we must address the total irresponsibility of the president of the United States, we must absolutely move forward aggressively in dealing with the economic crisis facing working families today. … We have to start the process of rebuilding the economy and creating the millions of good-paying jobs that we need.
There are enormous challenges facing the Congress, and we need to show the public that we can face all of them simultaneously.
How should Democrats approach reconciliation during the 117th Congress? How far should they go?
Understanding that my Republican colleagues have in the past — both under Bush and certainly under Trump — used reconciliation for massive tax breaks for the rich and large corporations, and they’ve also used reconciliation to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I’m going to use reconciliation too, but in a very different way.
I’m going to use reconciliation in as aggressive a way as I possibly can to address the terrible health and economic crises facing working people today.
As we speak, my staff and I are working. We’re working with Biden’s people. We’re working with Democratic leadership. We’ll be working with my colleagues in the House to figure out how we can come up with the most aggressive reconciliation bill to address the suffering of the American working families today.
Has President-elect Biden signaled how he might want to use this tool? Do you think it could be used for massive investments in infrastructure, for example?
I think we should think about how we use reconciliation in two ways. And it’s still not clear to me whether the two ways end up being in one piece of legislation or two. One is, dealing with the immediate crisis. Children in America are hungry. People are sleeping on the street. People are facing eviction. People have no health care in the middle of a pandemic. That is the immediate crisis of today, and it must be addressed.
But, there is also a systemic crisis that has been brewing for years that must be addressed. … What we’ve got to do is create millions of good-paying jobs, and that means clearly, as the president-elect has indicated, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, our roads and bridges. And I would add affordable housing to that, as well.
But it also means creating millions of jobs by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and retrofitting homes and buildings throughout this country, and moving to sustainable forms of energy, and creating jobs in health care. If this crisis has told us anything, it’s that we don’t have enough doctors, we don’t have enough nurses and other health care personnel. We have to build a primary health care system which is now in very, very poor shape.
So, short-term, we know what the crises are. People are desperate. … They’re worried about getting evicted. They’re worried about not being able to go to the doctor.
Second of all, we have structural problems that have to be addressed as well, to get the economy to work for working families.
You’re a staunch supporter of “Medicare for All.” Do you envision reconciliation being used for a massive expansion of health care? What might that look like?
Well, look, I am a very strong advocate of “Medicare for All.” I introduced legislation in the Senate. I think at the end of the day, the American people understand that our current health care system is so dysfunctional, so cruel, so wasteful, so expensive, that we need to do what every other major country on Earth does and get health care to all people. What we will be doing is working within the context of what Biden wants.
I will tell you this — that during this terrible pandemic when we’re seeing record-breaking numbers of people being diagnosed with the virus — the idea that 90 million people are worried about whether they can go to the doctor or not is cruel, it’s insane, it’s unacceptable. And that’s something that I think should be addressed and will be addressed in reconciliation.
As Senate Budget chair, you’ll be a key figure in setting overall defense and non-defense funding levels for fiscal 2022. There’s definitely appetite among progressives to rethink the Pentagon’s budget. How hard do you plan to push for cuts?
Let’s back it up and understand a couple facts. You understand you’re talking to the guy who led the effort to lower defense spending by 10 percent.
We’re talking about the military budget, which is now higher than the next 10 nations combined. No. 2, you’re talking about the Pentagon budget, which is the only major government agency which has not been able to undertake an independent audit. And I don’t think anyone has any doubt that there’s massive waste and cost overruns in the military budget.
It goes without saying that we want a strong military. It goes without saying we want to make sure that our troops are well taken care of, that they’re adequately paid, adequately housed, that they’re provided health care, child care for their kids, etc. But it also means that the military, the Pentagon, cannot be exempt from a hard look at fraud, crossover funds.
I think if you check the record, you’ll find that every major defense contractor has been found guilty of collusion and fraud.
How do you expect to have that conversation with your fellow Democrats, some of whom aren’t so keen on the notion of military funding cuts?
That’s a very good question. That’s a good question. But right now what’s on my mind is really reconciliation and addressing the crisis facing working families today.