JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, we get another perspective on the debate over U.S. spending and budgets. It comes from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He's the longest serving independent member of Congress. He caucuses with the Democrats. And he serves on the Senate Budget Committee.
Welcome, Sen. Sanders.
First off, tell us what your main impressions are of the president's $3.7 trillion budget proposal for next year?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vt.): Well, Judy, I have got a lot of problems with the president's budget. I think it's bad.
But I think the Republican budget is a lot worse. And my job, along with other progressive members of Congress, is to help create a budget which is fair and which protects the most vulnerable people in this country at a time when the poverty rate now is higher than at any time since 1948.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what would you do to achieve that? What changes would you make in the budget blueprint the president sent forward?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, that's a good question, Judy. And I think the answer is you have got to look at what's happening economically in America.
And what that's about is that our middle class is collapsing. Our median family income has gone down. Poverty is going way, way up. And the gap between the very, very rich and everybody else is going wider.
So, I think, before you look at budgets or how you deal with the deficit, you have got to take that into consideration. For example, the top 1 percent today earn more income than do the bottom 50 percent. They earn about 22 percent of every dollar earned in America. And that gap is growing wider.
Meanwhile, what this budget includes are massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. So, you have a situation. The rich are getting richer. Their tax rates have gone down for many, many years. Their effective tax rate right now -- people like Warren Buffett talk about this -- at 16 percent, is lower than at any time in recent history, and yet we're giving them huge tax breaks, while poverty in America is increasing.
We have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world for our children, and we're cutting programs for those people. So, the first thing we have to deal with is revenue. And, as a nation, we have got to say, sorry, the rich are getting richer. They're doing really well. Our friends on Wall Street, we shouldn't have to worry about. They get huge amounts of compensation.
We cannot continue to give huge tax breaks to the wealthy, cut back on programs for the vulnerable. So, that's the first issue I think we have to deal with.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the president has talked about corporate -- corporate tax reform. And he said, in two years, in -- for 2012, he's going to propose letting all those tax cuts expire that were allowed to continue in December.
You spent, what, eight-and-a-half-hours on the floor of the Senate in December in a -- in a protest against that. Are you confident the president is going to let the tax cuts expire?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No, of course I'm not. I mean, that's what the president said when he ran for president. And yet, when the Republicans stood up to him and said, we want to give more tax breaks, extend the Bush tax breaks, essentially, the president gave in.
When the Republicans said that, we want to lower the estate tax, Judy, which appeals -- which only applies to the top three-tenths of 1 percent -- these are not rich folks -- these the very richest people in America -- the president gave into that.
So, the president may tell us that he has this in mind, but I think the record is that he has not fought for those principles. The American people want him to fight for those principles.
And I think what this whole budget debate is about is do we stand up and say, no, we're not going to cut programs for those who need it?
The other issue that I think we have to talk about is, in the president's budget, he talks about Social Security. And he makes me a little bit nervous, because I think, as many of our listeners know, the Social Security trust fund today has a $2.6 trillion surplus.
Social Security can pay out every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 27 years. Social Security, because it is funded by the payroll tax, hasn't contributed one nickel to the deficit.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just interrupt you and point out, as you know very well, Republicans are criticizing the president for not tackling Social Security. In fact, some Democrats are saying he didn't embrace what his own fiscal reduction -- deficit reduction commission recommended.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: But that fiscal -- that's correct. But that reduction commission was made up of a conservative Democrat and a right-wing Republican.
Of course the Republicans have long wanted to privatize Social Security and destroy it. But Social Security has been the most important and valuable social program in the history of the United States. For 75 years, it's worked perfectly. It can pay out every nickel for the next 27 years, at which time it pays out 78 percent.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But it's not tackled in this budget.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, it's mentioned. You're right. It's not tackled, but it's mentioned.
And, in my view, when you have 16 percent of our people who are unemployed or underemployed, that's an issue that we have got to deal with, not worry so much about a program which can pay out every nickel for the next 27 years.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I know one thing you're concerned about, Senator, is the president's cuts in the low-income families' home heating assistance.
The president was asked about that at his news conference yesterday, and he said -- he talked about the price of heating, of energy going down that makes it more possible to do this. But he went on to say, "Yes, I'm frustrated." He knows people are struggling, but he said -- and I'm going to quote -- he said: "My job is to make sure we're focused on the long term. And the most important thing I can do as president is make sure we're living within our means, getting a budget that's sustainable, investing in the future."
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, first of all, if the president thinks the price of oil is going down, I invite him to come to the state of Vermont. Heating oil is going up. Of course, the price of gasoline at the pump is going up.
If the president is concerned -- concerned about the long-term sustainability of our budget, then he should not have caved into the Republicans and provided huge tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires.
What I get a little bit frustrated about is, we're giving money away to people who don't need it, and then we're really tough on students who are trying to get by on Pell Grants. You got the Community Service Block Grant. You know what that is? That is the infrastructure by which we protect low-income people all over America. The president has proposed a 50 percent cut in that.
So, I think what the American people understand is that, when we have such an unequal distribution of income right now, you don't give more to the people who don't need it and cut back on people who are hurting.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, what about all those voices on the Republican side, and including in the Democratic Party, who are saying, all of you in government right now need to be worried about the debt about...
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: ... the fact that within -- we're already borrowing so much more than the country can afford...
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Right. No, I...
JUDY WOODRUFF: ... and -- and so tough decisions have to be made about spending?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Absolutely, Judy. You're absolutely right. And the deficit is a very serious problem. Please, do not mishear me to suggest that it is not.
The deficit primarily has been caused by two wars unfunded, huge tax breaks to people who don't need it, an insurance-company-written Medicare Part D prescription drug program, and the bailout of Wall Street.
The cause of it is not hungry children in this country or people who are sleeping out on the street. So, we have got to deal with the deficit, but you do it in a fair and progressive way. For example, this year alone, we're losing a hundred billion dollars in revenue because corporations, the wealthy, are stashing their money in tax havens in the Cayman Islands.
This year, ExxonMobil, the most profitable corporation in the history of the world, is not paying a nickel in federal income taxes, despite having made $19 billion last year. In 2005, one-quarter of corporation -- large corporations in America making a trillion in revenue didn't pay a nickel in taxes. You have got a military budget which in many ways is still fighting the old Cold War.
So, I believe that we have to move toward significant deficit reduction, but you don't do it on the backs of the middle class and working families who are already suffering as a result of this Wall Street-caused recession.
You want to know the way to raise money? Put a transaction fee on Wall Street, so maybe we can curb some of the speculation and raise some money.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, we hear you. And we're going to leave it there.
Thank you very much for talking with us.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you.