The Congress has just ended one of the worst and least productive sessions in the history of our country. At a time when the problems facing us are monumental, Congress is dysfunctional and more and more people (especially the young) are, understandably, giving up on the political process. The people are hurting. They look to Washington for help. Nothing is happening.
In my view, the main cause of congressional dysfunction is an extreme right-wing Republican party whose main goal is to protect the wealthy and powerful. There is no tax break for the rich or large corporations that they don’t like. There is no program which protects working families — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, affordable housing, etc. — that they don’t want to cut.
But the Democrats (with whom I caucus as an independent) are most certainly not without fault. In the Senate, they have tolerated Republican obstructionism for much too long and allowed major legislation to fail for lack of 60 votes. They have failed to bring forth a strong and consistent agenda which addresses the economic crises facing the vast majority of our struggling population, and have not rallied the people in support of that agenda.
As we survey our country at the end of 2013, I don’t have to tell you about the crises we face. Many of you are experiencing them every day.
n The middle class continues to decline, with median family income some $5,000 less than in 1999.
n More Americans, 46.5 million, are now living in poverty than at any time in our nation’s history. Child poverty, at 22 percent, is the highest of any major country.
n Real unemployment is not 7 percent. If one includes those who have given up looking for work and those who want full-time work but are employed part-time, real unemployment is over 13 percent — and youth unemployment is much higher than that.
n Most of the new jobs that are being created are part-time and low wage, but the minimum wage remains at the starvation level of $7.25 per hour.
n Millions of college students are leaving school deeply in debt, while many others have given up on their dream of a higher education because of the cost.
n Meanwhile, as tens of millions of Americans struggle to survive economically, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well and corporate profits are at an all-time high. In fact, wealth and income inequality today is greater than at any time since just before the Great Depression. One family, the Walton family with its Wal-Mart fortune, now owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans. In recent years, 95 percent of all new income has gone to the top 1 percent.
n The scientific community has been very clear: Global warming is real, it is already causing massive problems and, if we don’t significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet we leave to our kids and grandchildren will be less and less habitable.
Clearly, if we are going to save the middle class and protect our planet, we need to change the political dynamics of the nation. We can no longer allow the billionaires and their think tanks or the corporate media to set the agenda. We need to educate, organize and mobilize the working families of our country to stand up for their rights. We need to make government work for all the people, not just the 1 percent.
When Congress reconvenes for the 2014 session, here are a few of the issues that I will focus on. (By the way, I’d love to hear from you as to what your priorities are.)
Wealth and income inequality: A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little. It is simply not acceptable that the top 1 percent owns 38 percent of the financial wealth of the nation, while the bottom 60 percent owns all of 2.3 percent. We need to establish a progressive tax system which asks the wealthy to start paying their fair share of taxes, and which ends the outrageous loopholes that enable one out of four corporations to pay nothing in federal taxes.
Jobs: We need to make significant investments in our crumbling infrastructure, in energy efficiency and sustainable energy, in early childhood education and in affordable housing. When we do that, we not only improve the quality of life in our country and combat global warming, we also create millions of decent-paying new jobs.
Wages: We need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. We should pass the legislation, which will soon be on the Senate floor, to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, but we must raise that minimum wage even higher in the coming years. We also need to expand our efforts at worker-ownership. Employees will not be sending their jobs to China or Vietnam when they own the places in which they work.
Retirement: At a time when only one in five workers in the private sector have a defined benefit pension plan; half of Americans have less than $10,000 in savings; and two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security for more than half of their income, we must expand and protect Social Security so that every American can retire with dignity.
Wall Street: During the financial crisis, huge Wall Street banks received more than $700 billion in financial aid from the Treasury Department and more than $16 trillion from the Federal Reserve because they were “too big to fail.” Yet today, the largest banks in this country are much bigger than they were before taxpayers bailed them out. It’s time to break up these behemoths so that they cannot cause another recession that could wreck the global economy.
Campaign finance reform: We are not living in a real democracy when large corporations and a handful of billionaire families can spend unlimited sums of money to elect or defeat candidates. We must expand our efforts to overturn the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision and move this country to public funding of elections.
Social justice: While we have made progress in recent years in expanding the rights of minorities, women and gays, these advances are under constant attack from the right-wing. If the United States is to become the non-discriminatory society we want it to be, we must fight to protect the rights of all Americans.
Civil liberties: Frankly, the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies are out of control. We cannot talk about America as a “free country” when the government is collecting information on virtually every phone call we make, when it is intercepting our emails and monitoring the websites we visit. Clearly, we need to protect this country from terrorism, but we must do it in a way that does not undermine the Constitution.
War and peace: With a large deficit and enormous unmet needs, it is absurd that the United States continues to spend almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. The U.S. must be a leader in the world in nuclear disarmament and efforts toward peace, not in the sale of weapons of destruction.
This is a tough and historical moment in American history. Despair is not an option. We must stand together as brothers and sisters and fight for the America our people deserve.
Bernard Sanders is an independent representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate.MORE IN Commentary
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