By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — After 15 years of service as Vermont’s lone representative in the U.S. House, independent Bernard Sanders hopes voters this November will give him a new role in Washington, D.C. — as a United States senator.
Sanders, 64, is seeking to fill the spot being vacated by longtime Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt. The fiery progressive congressman and former Burlington mayor faces competition from IDX Systems founder Richard Tarrant, a Colchester Republican.
During a far-ranging interview on July 7 at the Addison Independent, Sanders shared his views on such issues as the war in Iraq, farming, job creation, the federal deficit and health care.
As usual, he did not mince words.
“The first and most important issue is that we have got to end one-party, right-wing Republican control over all branches of our government,” Sanders said.
He sees the 2006 mid-term elections as being critical in restoring balance to federal government. He referred specifically to the GOP majorities in the U.S. House and Senate; the Republicans’ control of the White House; and the recent Republican appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“What I believe is that on virtually every important issue you can think of — whether it’s the economy, health care, the war in Iraq, the national debt, Social Security, the environment — these guys are moving our country in the wrong direction,” Sanders said.
Sanders touted what he said has been a very strong record on farm issues during his more than 15 years in the U.S. House. He recalled working with Vermont Sens. Jeffords and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to establish the Northeast Dairy Compact in 1997, a price support system that paid dairy farmers a premium whenever federal prices fell below a minimum set by the compact.
When the compact expired in 2001, Sanders said he again worked with Jeffords and Leahy to push for the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program, which assured farmers federal subsidy money when the price of milk dropped below $16.94 per hundredweight.
Sanders said the MILC program has, to date, netted the state and its farmers around $50 million.
“That is a lot of money for a small state,” Sanders said. “I am proud that I led the effort in the House for the MILC program, which has kept many farmers in business.”
He chastised the Republican leadership in Congress for espousing a policy of “getting government out of the farming business.”
“I think that for states like Vermont, where it is expensive to produce milk, that phasing out agricultural programs would be an absolute disaster for working farms… I think the federal government should be making a very strong commitment to maintain family-based agriculture in the U.S.A.”
Sanders said the loss of American farms will only make the country more “dependant on foreign food, the way we have become dependant on foreign oil.”
Losing more farms in Vermont could “transform the whole landscape of the state and our economy.”
He applauded Gov. James Douglas and the Vermont Legislature for recently appropriating $8.6 million in emergency aid for farmers. But he said much more needs to be done, particularly at the federal level.
Some farm aid efforts have already been thwarted at the federal level, according to Sanders. He pointed to an initial version of the emergency supplemental budget bill that contained $1.5 billion in energy-related aid for the country’s farmers. But he said lawmakers took that money out under the threat of a veto by President George W. Bush.
Sanders vowed to bring that $1.5 billion request back to Congress in the coming months.
“We’re seeing a huge transformation of rural, family-based agriculture,” Sanders said. “It’s not good for nutrition, it’s not good for the economy and it’s not good for the environment.”
He added that along with providing economic support when needed, the federal government should encourage farmers to grow biofuels-related crops, such as switch grass and corn.
RETIRING THE NATIONAL DEBT
If Democrats are able to take back the House and/or Senate this November, Sanders would like to see a renewed emphasis on retiring the $8.3 trillion national debt.
Sanders criticized the Bush administration and the GOP majority in Congress for advancing a series of tax breaks that have benefited the wealthiest Americans during a time of war. Those tax breaks, coupled with the expense of the war in Iraq, have ratcheted up the national debt by $2.5 trillion since Bush came into office, according to Sanders.
At the same time, Sanders said the GOP is attempting to repeal the estate tax, a measure he said would net $750 billion over 10 years for the wealthiest two-tenths of 1 percent of Americans.
“At a time when the wealthiest people in our country have never had it so good, when we are seeing a significant increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires, it is wrong and immoral to force our kids and grandchildren into debt in order to make the richest people in our country even richer,” Sanders said. “We must rescind the huge tax breaks given to the wealthiest people in our country, and free our kids and nation from this horrendous debt.”
The national debt is but one symptom of malaise in the U.S. economy, according to Sanders. While he acknowledged an increase in the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), he said the U.S. now has a $720 billion trade deficit; has lost around 3 million manufacturing jobs; and is seeing an increasing number of white-collar information technology jobs migrate to cheaper labor markets in China and India.
An additional 5 million people have slipped into poverty during the past five years, according to Sanders.
At the same time, Sanders said the Bush White House has been trumpeting a “robust” economy.
“The economy is doing great, except for the people in the economy,” Sanders said. “The middle class has shrunk for five straight years. There are millions of people working longer hours for less pay. How this constitutes a ‘robust economy’ is beyond my limited intelligence.”
Along with improving economic conditions for the poor and middle class, Sanders’ senate agenda includes fully funding federal aid to education and special education; promoting and developing more sources of renewable energy; extending health care coverage to all Americans; and ending the war in Iraq; and raising the national minimum wage.
Sanders blasted the GOP leadership for approving sweeping tax cuts while maintaining the minimum wage at $5.15 per hour.
“It tells you something about the mentality of the people who are currently running our country … that they fight for tax breaks for billionaires, but they cannot vote for a proposal to raise the minimum wage,” Sanders said.
He conceded that many states — including Vermont — have independently raised their own minimum wage rates. But Sanders said that trend should send a message to leaders at the national level.
Another message that federal officials are finally getting, according to Sanders, is the need to explore alternative fuel and power sources. The spiraling costs of fossil fuels are forcing lawmakers to take a serious look at solar, wind, ethanol, biodiesel and methane-to-energy technologies, according to Sanders.
“All of this stuff is sitting there, and we can create millions of good paying jobs — including jobs in agriculture,” Sanders said. “I’m very excited about that.”
Sanders said he is also excited with the prospect of lobbying for health care reform as a member of the U.S. Senate. With businesses seeing double-digit annual increases in health care premiums and six million fewer Americans insured than there were five years ago, Sanders believes the time is ripe for change.
“Clearly, in my view, we have to appreciate that our health care system is disintegrating,” Sanders said.
Americans, according to Sanders, are paying twice as much (per person) for health care as any other nation in the world.
“Long-term, the United States has got to join the industrialized world with a national health care program, in my view, to be administered at the statewide level,” Sanders said. “A single-payer system would be the most successful.”
In the short-term, Sanders said more communities nationwide need to apply for Federally Qualified Health Centers. Those clinics — of which there are currently five in Vermont, including one in Brandon — provide low-cost prescription drugs, as well as medical, dental and mental health services at sliding-scale rates to locals. Each clinic currently receives $650,000 in annual federal funding, according to Sanders.
“Today, in Vermont, there are some 72,000 people getting their primary health care due to these clinics,” Sanders said.
WAR IN IRAQ
Three years ago Sanders voted against giving President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. He remains opposed to the conflict and believes U.S. troops should be withdrawn “within a year.”
Sanders said he believes the president “cherry-picked” information in the lead up to war, and that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others at the Pentagon misjudged the severity and duration of the conflict.
“They miscalculated and were unprepared for the war we are having, and now, they don’t know how to get us out,” Sanders said.
He believes that the U.S. military should be drawing up plans for an exit within a year, while at the same time giving the Iraqi government the resources it needs to defend itself.
“I think it is time for them to take responsibility for defending their own country,” Sanders said.