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The job of Congress now is to listen to the American people, move our country boldly forward on a path to economic success and show voters that Democrats are prepared to do everything possible to improve their lives.
The headlines dominating the news understandably deal with the outrageous behavior of President Donald Trump and the attempted coup he inspired at our nation’s Capitol.Yes, it was important for the House of Representatives to impeach Trump. Yes, the Senate must convict him. No president, now or in the future, can lead an insurrection against the United States government and get away with it. But as enormously important as that is, we must not lose sight of the pain and anxiety of millions of working families all over this country, as they suffer through the worst public health and economic crises in the modern history of our country. In fact, many working families are facing more economic desperation today than any time since the Great Depression.
As a result of the pandemic, tens of millions of our fellow citizens have lost their jobs and incomes. Hunger is at its highest level in decades, and 40 million could be on the brink of eviction when the federal moratorium expires at the end of January. While more than 24 million people in our country have tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, tens of millions of Americans are uninsured or under-insured. Amid so much economic suffering and despair, when many Americans have lost faith in their government—and when millions are prepared to accept lies about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election—it is imperative that Democrats pass a bold and aggressive economic agenda within the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency. Now is not the time to think small. It is the time to think big and to restore faith among working families—Black, White, Latino, Asian American and Native American—that in a democratic society, government can respond to their needs.
Failure to adequately respond to the economic desperation in America today will undermine the Biden administration and likely lead Democrats to lose their thin majorities in the US House of Representatives and US Senate in 2022. Democrats suffered significant loses in 1994, two years after President Bill Clinton’s victory—and, in 2010, two years after President Barack Obama’s victory.
We must not repeat those mistakes. The danger we face would not be in going too big or spending too much but in going too small and leaving the needs of the American people behind. If Republicans would like to work with us, we should welcome them. But their support is not necessary. In 2010, Sen. Mitch McConnell was willing to sabotage the economy to advantage Republicans, doing everything he could to make Obama a “one-term president.”
We cannot let him play the same games again. The Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass major legislation has become an excuse for inaction. But let’s be clear: We have the tools to overcome these procedural hurdles. As incoming Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, I will use a process known as budget reconciliation that will allow us to pass comprehensive legislation with only 51 votes.
This is not a radical idea. When the Republicans controlled the Senate during the George W. Bush and Trump presidencies, they used reconciliation to pass trillions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations. They also used reconciliation to try and repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Today, Democrats must use this same process to lift Americans out of poverty, increase wages and create good-paying jobs.
First, we must increase the direct payments passed by Congress in December from $600 to $2,000 for every working-class adult and their children. On this issue, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, several Republicans in the House and the Senate and undoubtedly millions of struggling Americans—who wanted more stimulus in December—would agree. But given the enormous crises facing the country, that is not enough. Through reconciliation, we must pass a major Covid-relief package that expands emergency unemployment benefits to $600 a week, provides aid to state and local governments to prevent mass layoffs, enacts hazard pay for frontline workers, saves the US Postal Service, addresses the crisis of homelessness and ensures that no one in America goes hungry or is evicted.
During the crisis, we must provide emergency health care to all by requiring Medicare to pay the medical bills of the uninsured and under-insured. We must fully fund Covid-19 testing, tracing and vaccine distribution. At a time when our primary care health care system is faltering, and when millions have no medical home, we must also substantially increase funding for community health centers and the National Health Service Corps, which provides scholarships and forgive student debt of medical professionals who agree to work in underserved areas. Through reconciliation, we must make sure that unemployment benefits during this crisis period are not taxable so that workers don’t get hit with a huge tax bill they didn’t expect on April 15.
Moreover, we need to create millions of good paying jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure—our roads, bridges, sidewalks, schools, water systems and affordable housing. Further, as we lead the world in combating the existential threat of climate change, we can create millions more jobs by making massive investments in wind, solar, geothermal, electric vehicles, weatherization and energy storage. We must guarantee at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and end the international embarrassment of the United States as the only high-income nation that fails to provide paid maternity leave.
In order to address our dysfunctional early childhood education system, we must provide universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old in the country and greatly expand childcare. And, if we are to have the best-educated workforce in the world, we need to make public colleges and universities tuition free and cancel all student debt for working-class Americans.
As we do all these things, we can use the reconciliation process to substantially lower the outrageous cost of prescription drugs and raise the minimum wage to $15. Not only would these provisions improve life for millions, they would save the federal government hundreds of billions. In this extraordinarily difficult moment, poll after poll has shown that the American people want government to respond aggressively to address the crises they face. The job of Congress now is to listen to the American people, move our country boldly forward on a path to economic success and show voters that Democrats are prepared to do everything possible to improve their lives.
This is an unprecedented moment in American history. We must act in an unprecedented way.
Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. Sanders ran to become the Democratic Party presidential nominee in both 2016 and 2020 and remains the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history. Elected Mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 election as Vermont’s at-large member in Congress, Sanders lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York.