WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., praised President Barack Obama’s focus on income inequality in his annual State of the Union address last week, and urged his colleagues in Congress to back legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage.
“I’m glad that the president has recognized the enormity of the problem,” Sanders said in an interview with the Independent. “Frankly, I think he could have gotten into it a little bit deeper.”
Sitting in his office in the Dirksen Building this past Thursday after the Senate had adjourned for the week, Sanders decried the gap between rich and poor in the country.
“The truth is, and it needs to be stated over and over again, that the United States has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth,” Sanders said. “It is worse in America now than it was in 1928. The numbers are really, incredibly disturbing.”
Last week, President Obama focused part of his address to Congress on the topic.
“Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled,” Obama said. “The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by — let alone get ahead.”
The president urged Congress to draft legislation to help Americans achieve upward social mobility. If it did not, Obama said he would take action on his own.
“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” the president said.
Asked what legislation he would support, Sanders listed a number of proposals.
“It goes without saying that we should extend long-term unemployment benefits of 1.6 million people who have lost their benefits,” he said. “We can’t turn our backs on those struggling families.”
Sanders also supports raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour (from the current $7.25), and said he was pleased that the president raised the minimum wage for all federal contractors to that level.
“That was an idea that we proposed in late September in a letter with 14 other senators,” Sanders said. “The president, in a sense, took that idea and ran with it.”
Sanders called for the government to create a “major jobs program,” citing the chronic problem of unemployment and underemployment that has plagued the country since the 2007 financial crisis.
“Real unemployment is not 6.8 percent, it’s 13 percent. Youth unemployment is 20 percent. African-American youth unemployment is 40 percent,” Sanders said.
Vermont’s labor force weathered the recession better than other states, and the state’s unemployment rate of 4.2 percent in January was one of the lowest in the nation. But this figure does not tell the entire employment picture, as it does not measure average wages or underemployment. It also does not account for those who have given up looking for work. Vermont’s workforce shed nearly 1,000 workers in December.
Sanders said part of the solution to reversing this trend is to spend more money repairing the country’s roads, rails and bridges.
“We need to put millions of people back to work, and I think the fastest and best way to do that is by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure,” Sanders said. “There’s enough work to be done to make this country a more productive and efficient society.”
Sanders said he supports a bill currently being debated in the Senate that would raise the federal minimum wage. The bill would tie the minimum wage to inflation, so it would, like Vermont’s minimum wage, be annually adjusted.
He said the bill has strong support in the Democratic caucus, but did not know if Democrats will be able to secure 60 votes to invoke cloture and prevent a Republican filibuster of the bill.
“One thing we do know is that a significant majority of the American people think we should do it,” Sanders said. “The Republicans then are forced to make it very clear that they are on the side of Big Money and are willing to prevent some of the most hard-pressed workers in this country from getting a modest raise.”
Never one to shy away from criticizing his Republican colleagues, Sanders last week found himself in a contentious debate with Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., on the CNN program “Crossfire,” on the question of whether or not Congress should raise the minimum wage, and other economic policies. The 13-minute segment quickly devolved into a heated debate that host Wolf Blitzer struggled to moderate.
Asked if Bachmann’s refusal to say if she supported raising the minimum wage during the discussion was emblematic of many Republicans in Congress, Sanders said that many Republicans hold views that are “extremely unpopular” with Americans.
“So when they go and say ‘I’m in favor of entitlement reform,’ entitlement reform sounds pretty good,” Sanders said. “What that really means, and everybody knows it, is cuts in Social Security. What these guys do, is they try to come up with phraseology — and they’re very good at that — without acknowledging what they’re doing.”
At the tail end of the segment, Bachmann did concede that she opposed the minimum wage. Sanders said Thursday that he believed that many Republicans want to go further than that.
“I wouldn’t be quite surprised that in her heart of hearts she, like many other Republicans, think the concept of a minimum wage should be abolished,” Sanders said.
Sanders this session also introduced a veterans bill. Officially titled the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Bill, the legislation would reinstate the cost of living adjustment that was removed last year by Congress. The bill also would require public universities to provide in-state tuition to veterans using the GI Bill, and improve access to health and dental care for veterans.
Sanders became chairman of the Senate Committee of Veterans’ Affairs last year, his first chairmanship since joining the Senate in 2007. The bill is expected to reach the Senate floor this week, and Sanders said he believes it will receive bipartisan support.
“It is a comprehensive bill,” Sanders said. “As chairman of the Veterans Committee I have listened to veterans in Vermont and all over this country about what their needs are, what their priorities are.”
Sanders said that these proposals would make progress in closing the gap between the rich and poor in the United States. He added that he fears that deep income inequality is a recipe for oligarchy.
“As a result of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, as a result of income and wealth inequality, what we’re seeing is a nation in which fewer and fewer people are going to have economic and political power, and I think that is very much not the kind of country that most of us want to see,” Sanders said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this.”