Mr Chairman: How Bernie Sanders is calling the shots from his new role in Congress

Now steering the critical Budget Committee, the nation’s progressive elder statesman is putting wealth inequality and workers rights at the forefront, writes Alex Woodward

Thursday 01 April 2021 18:00 BST
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Energy nominee Jennifer Granholm before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Capitol Hill
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Energy nominee Jennifer Granholm before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Capitol Hill (Getty Images)
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In 2016, Paul Ryan – a then-ascendent Republican House Speaker and a one-time contender for the GOP presidential nomination – issued a warning to a group of Young Republicans ahead of that year’s elections.

“If we lose the Senate, do you know who becomes chair of the Senate Budget Committee?” he asked. “A guy named Bernie Sanders. You ever heard of him?”

Following Mr Ryan’s accidental case for the progressive champion, Mr Sanders chimed in: “Sounds like a good idea.”

Several years later, following the inauguration of Joe Biden and the election of two Georgia Democrats to the US Senate, shifting the balance of power in Congress to a razor-thin Democratic majority, there emerged Chairman Sanders.

Within the last few weeks, the Vermont senator has held congressional hearings on wealth inequality and corporate bailouts, forced a vote on the Senate floor to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $15, introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at raising taxes on the nation’s ultra-rich, and critically, ushered into Congress a definitive piece of legislation that encompassed Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, one of the largest-ever measures in US history to combat poverty.

Meanwhile, he has rallied organisers and Amazon workers in Alabama – frustrating one of the world’s wealthiest men in the process – during a high-stakes union vote that could chart a new era for labour organising in the US.

And, to quote the senator’s campaign, the revolution is just getting started.

‘Changing the conversation’

Mr Sanders, a 79-year-old democratic socialist who was first elected to Congress in 1991, has remained a resolute and self-described “outsider” in Washington DC – a keen observer of the ineffectual status quo, and an influential figure whose personality and moral compass have been elevated by millions of people after two bids for the Democratic presidential nomination that left crater-sized impressions on American political and ideological spectrums.

Now sitting at the head of one of the most powerful committees in Congress, the senator from Vermont is effectively steering the entire federal budget process through his decades-long progressive vision.

“Senator Sanders has changed the conversation by boldly putting forward transformative legislation to rein in CEO pay, defend the estate tax and restore fair corporate tax rates,” Chuck Collins, Director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, told The Independent.

“At the centre of his agenda is concern about how to reverse the extreme inequalities of income and wealth,” he said.

Mr Sanders initiated a budget reconciliation process – which expedites high-priority fiscal legislation that can’t be filibustered to death – for Mr Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan package to address the ongoing economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis. It passed without a single Republican vote in support.

But contrary to his reputation as a loner in Congress, Chairman Sanders relied on his colleagues’ support and remained in close contact with the White House, congressional leadership and the 93-member Progressive Caucus (whose growing influence – including meetings with the White House – has Mr Sanders’s imprint).

“People thought that he just yelled a lot, but didn’t get anything done,” said US Rep Pramila Jayapal, Progressive Caucus Chair and a 2020 campaign surrogate for Mr Sanders.

“But I really don’t think that’s ever been true,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “And I also think that people underestimate the power of the movement, the power of populism, the power of people really believing in something – and Bernie never has underestimated that.”

In January, he pledged to mount an “aggressive” approach to using the reconciliation process “to address the terrible health and economic crises facing working people today”.

Mr Sanders and Democrats have another shot at reconciliation for their next plan – lawmakers can use it no more than once every fiscal year, but Mr Trump did not pass a budget in fiscal year 2020.

On the heels of his American Rescue Plan, President Biden unveiled a sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure proposal that would touch nearly every aspect of American life.

The proposal aims to modernise the nation’s ageing water systems and expand internet access, repair crumbling roads and bridges, incentivise manufacturing projects to remain in the US, and revive schools and care facilities – all threaded by long-term sustainability goals in the face of the climate crisis and addressing lingering racial and socioeconomic disparities.

Bernie Sanders says low-wage workers 'subsidising' corporations with 'starvation wages'

It’s that “soul of the nation” restoration that Mr Biden echoed throughout his campaign, but it also speaks to the moral imperative for critical public investments and opportunities for major tax reforms that Mr Sanders has sought to place at the forefront of the nation’s legislative agenda throughout his career.

Mr Biden’s proposal would require raising taxes on households earning more than $400,000 a year while hiking corporate tax rates, seeking to eliminate the sweeping cuts under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 under then-president Donald Trump. It faces enormous GOP opposition.

But it’s a prime opportunity for Chairman Sanders to roll out his pitch to combat what he has declared is a “rigged” tax system, and Democratic lawmakers are standing alongside him.

Seizing popular support

Mr Sanders unveiled three proposals – the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act, For the 99.5% Act and the Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act – within two weeks in March.

“Unbelievably, the United States today has more income and wealth inequality than almost any major country on Earth,” he said in a statement announcing the latter two measures.

“This inequality has only deepened with the economic crisis brought on by [Covid-19] and by a tax system that allows for billionaires to pay less in taxes than working people across the country,” he said. “From a moral, economic and political perspective our nation will not thrive when so few have so much and so many have so little.”

Raising taxes on the nation’s wealthiest also has widespread popular support.

A 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll that found nearly two-thirds of respondents believe America’s rich should pay more. Another 2020 poll from Hill-HarrisX found that 67 per cent of voters supports a “wealth tax” on America’s billionaires.

And a recent Morning Consult poll focused on Mr Biden’s infrastructure plan poll found that 54 per cent of voters support raising taxes on Americans earning more than $400,000 to pay for infrastructure improvements.

In a letter to Mr Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, a group of 81 national organisations stressed the broad public support for raising taxes on the nation’s ultra-rich.

“You put these issues on the ballot last November, and they won,” they wrote on 30 March. “Now is the time to seize the initiative, rally your wide support among the American people, stare down the defenders of the supply-side, trickle-down status quo.”

For his part, Mr Biden also criticised the conservative fiscal legacy of “trickle-down economics” during an address from the White House Rose Garden, where he said that “all it has done is make those at the top richer in the past and everyone else has fallen behind”.

Mr Sanders has underscored popular support for economic justice by frequently contrasting public opinion poll results with the minority party’s steadfast rejections – often in front of them during committee hearings.

Proposing companies ‘pay their fair share’

The For the 99.5% Act and the Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act were announced just a week after the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act, which proposes raising taxes on companies that pay their top executives at least 50 times more than the pay of a median worker.

In 1980, corporate CEOs made an average of 42 times more money than their average workers. But over the last two decades, CEO pay has ballooned to nearly 350 times more than an average employee, according to Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies.

The organisation reported that nearly 80 per cent of S&P 500 companies paid their CEO more than 100 times the median salary for their average worker in 2018, while nearly 10 per cent of those companies paid median incomes that were below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

In a statement announcing the bill, Mr Sanders said the US is “moving toward an oligarchic form of society where the very rich are doing phenomenally well, and working families are struggling in a way that we have not seen since the Great Depression.”

“At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, the American people are demanding that large, profitable corporations pay their fair share of taxes and treat their employees with the dignity and respect they deserve,” he said.

Mr Sanders also wants the corporate tax rate hiked up to 35 per cent – it was slashed to 21 per cent under Mr Trump’s proposal. Mr Biden wants to raise it to 28 per cent.

The senator’s For the 99.5% Act would establish a progressive estate tax, beginning with a levy of 45 per cent for estates valued between $3.5m and $10m, and as high as 65 per cent for estates worth $1bn or more.

It would raise $430bn through 2031, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

“We have a tax code which enables the very, very richest people in America and the largest corporations to avoid paying their share of taxes,” he said during a committee hearing. “That has got to change.”

The rate isn’t a radical one, his office argues. From 1941-1976, the top estate tax rate was 77 per cent on estates worth more than $50m.

Under that proposal, Walmart’s Walton family – the nation’s wealthiest – would pay up to $85.8bn more in taxes on their fortune of $221.6 billion, according to lawmakers.

The family of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would pay up to $44.4bn more on his reported $178bn fortune.

Under the Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act, which would aim to raise more $2.3 trillion in revenue, corporations would be prohibited from shifting their profits offshore to avoid paying taxes in the US.

Rallying American workers

On 5 March, Mr Sanders put on record the votes of eight Democratic senators who opposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15: Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, Jeanne Shaheen, Maggie Hassan, Kyrsten Sinema, Tom Carper and Chris Coons, along with Angus King, an independent who caucused with Democrats.

After the rule-setting Senate Parliamentarian issued guidance that a provision to raise the minimum wage from its current $7.25 could not be included as part of the American Rescue Plan, Mr Sanders put it up for a vote anyway. It failed, by a vote of 58-42.

But the debate marked a victory for labour organisers and the Fight For $15 movement, which Mr Sanders has campaigned alongside throughout his presidential runs. Mr Sanders and labour organisers also hosted an event with then-VP candidate Kamala Harris, getting her to pledge White House support for raising the federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been touched since 2009.

“If any senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken,” Mr Sanders said in a statement following the vote. “We’re going to keep bringing it up.”

On 17 March, Mr Sanders held a Budget Committee hearing on the “Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America” and called Mr Bezos to testify. He declined.

But the committee heard testimony from Jennifer Bates, among the roughly 5,800 Amazon workers at the retail giant’s sorting facility in Bessemer, Alabama in the middle of a high-profile union vote that could determine the first labour union in the company’s history, potentially triggering a wave of labour organising across the US, if successful.

A week later, Mr Sanders was on the ground in Birmingham, Alabama, rallying union organisers and Amazon workers as voting came to a close.

“You’re prepared to stand up and say that every worker in this country deserves to have decent wages, decent working conditions, decent benefits, and to be treated with dignity, not as a robot,” he said at a rally on 27 March. “If you pull this off here, workers all over this country will be saying, ‘If these guys in Alabama could take on the wealthiest guy in the world, we can do it as well’.”

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