Sen. Bernie Sanders

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An outspoken critic of the status quo, Vermont’s independent senator assesses the minimum wage debate, poverty and presidential politics.

Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders is the first person elected to the Senate to identify as a socialist, though he caucuses with the Democrats. He previously served 16 years in the House and is the longest-serving independent member of Congress in U.S. history. He also served four terms as mayor of Burlington, VT and lectured at Harvard's JFK School of Government and New York's Hamilton College. Sanders' legislative interests include a focus on America's shrinking middle class and widening income gap, and, in the current Congress, he serves on five standing committees, including Veterans' Affairs, which he chairs. He recently indicated he's considering a 2016 presidential run.


Tavis Smiley: Pleased to have back on this program Independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who last week fought valiantly along with Democrats on the floor of the Senate against an effort by Republicans to not increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Republicans won that fight, but I suspect this fight will continue in the days and weeks to come. Senator Sanders, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Good to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: So you guys fought this to push this to $10.10 an hour, the minimum wage; Republicans fought against it. You lost. Tell me why and how.

Sanders: Well first of all, as is often the case here in the Senate we had the majority vote, we had 54 votes. When we have to deal with Republican filibusters, we need 60. We only got one Republican who was prepared to allow us to even debate the issue.

Bottom line is it is very clear to me that the Republican Party has moved toward being an extreme right-wing party. Historically they supported raising the minimum wage, now they don’t.

The fact of the matter is that $7.25 an hour, which is what the national minimum wage today, is a starvation wage. You’ve got millions of families who are earning that wage or a little bit more who are finding it impossible, impossible, to provide for their families.

So to my mind, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour doesn’t go far enough, but it is an important step forward in giving a pay raise, Tavis, to some 28 million Americans to who desperately need it.

Tavis: You call these “starvation wages.” Obviously, Republicans disagree. What is at the epicenter of their argument against raising the minimum wage to a living wage?

Sanders: Well first of all, let’s be very clear. You have many, many Republicans, and I don’t think most Americans know this, but you have many Republicans from the Koch brothers on down who not only do not want to raise the minimum wage, their view is that we should abolish the concept of the minimum wage.

That means if you’re in a high unemployment area and an employer offers you three bucks an hour, then that’s what the wage will be. But the bottom line for the Republicans in general, it’s the same old story.

They believe that we should give more tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country and to the largest corporations, and that magically, trickle-down economics is going to create millions of good-paying jobs in America. I think history has suggested that is not the case.

Tavis: So if you can’t get beyond, or get the votes, that is, to – if this vote is not filibuster-proof, let’s put it that way, how do we ever get around, then, to the idea of raising the minimum wage, again, to a living wage for fellow citizens? Does that mean that’s not going to happen?

Sanders: Well no. I think the approach is going to be twofold. Number one, it is already happening around the country, because while the national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, state after state, including my state of Vermont, has gone substantially above that.

In Vermont, I think we’re close to $9.00 an hour; the state of Washington is higher than that. In fact, in Seattle, Washington last week, their city council and mayor have decided to eventually move the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is the direction we should have to go.

But I think what’s really going on here, Tavis, is the extreme right wing, the Koch brothers and these other folks, exert enormous influence over members, Republican members, of the Congress.

At a time when the middle class is disappearing, at a time when we have more people living in poverty than ever before in the history of this country, what the Republicans want to do is continue their efforts to go to war against working families and the middle class, and provide everything they possibly can to the top 1 percent.

Tavis: What does it say about our national politics when, to the point you’ve just made now, Senator, the minimum wage increases that are happening are happening in states and cities across the country, but not out of Washington.

What’s that say about our national politics?

Sanders: Well it says that very simply, it’s impossible to get anything done in the Senate unless you get 60 votes, and we very rarely get support from Republicans on anything that’s significant.

Certainly the Republican House is not going to do anything to help working families. What it tells us – let me be very honest with you, Tavis. What I believe, if we do not get our act together, I believe this country is going to move toward an oligarchic form of society, where billionaires and the big money interests are going to control not only the economic life of this country but the political life of this country.

You’re looking at a situation where, as a result of Citizens United, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson and other billionaires are now able to provide hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in elections all over this country to defeat progressive candidates and to support right-wing candidates.

Unless we overturn Citizens United, unless we pass some form of public funding of elections, I worry very much about the political future of this country.

Tavis: But if you can’t get enough votes to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, surely we don’t think at this moment, although I would love to see this, surely we don’t think at this moment that we can overturn Citizens United.

So that with millions of dollars more, given these recent Supreme Court decisions, being poured into political campaigns, political war chests, what agency, then, do the American people have to fight back against that kind of money?

Sanders: The only thing that I can think of, and what I believe from the bottom of my heart, is that we have to educate, we have to organize, and we have to take the fight to the Republicans.

They are on the wrong side not only from a public policy point of view, but just politically. You ask people all over America should we raise the minimum wage, people overwhelmingly say yes.

You ask people should we cut Medicare and Medicaid, which is what the Republicans want, and people say no. It is clear to me, and I hope to more and more Americans, that the Republicans now are simply doing the bidding of the billionaire class and ignoring the middle income people of this country and working families.

So what we need to do is to educate and organize, and I’ll tell you what I worry about, Tavis. What the pundits predict is that in this next election, November 2014, 60 percent of the American people will not vote.

Young people will not vote, low-income people will not vote, in overwhelming numbers. We’re talking 70, 80 percent of low-income people not participating in the political process. That’s not what democracy is supposed to be.

Tavis: No, I get that, and obviously, talking to me at least, and I suspect our audience as well, you’re probably preaching to the choir that we need to engage our democracy at the polls. I get that.

But the flip side of that argument, though, is that the American people, the people that you’ve just listed, young and others, know that our democracy is dysfunctional. They know that the process is rigged.

So why participate in a system that really is more of an auction than it is an election?

Sanders: Well I’ll tell you why – because you don’t have the luxury of not participating. Because if people, working families, lower-income people, young people, do not participate, we’re going to look at a situation where climate change gets worse and worse, and we have a political party, the Republicans, who do not acknowledge the science.

We’re going to look at a situation where the middle class is disappearing and you have a Republican Party which is simply interested in the needs of the rich. So I understand that the average American looks toward Washington and says, “What is going on there? Why should I vote?”

The answer is you have got to participate in a way you never have before, because if you don’t, if you don’t elect good people, if you don’t hold them accountable, if you don’t defeat the people who want to privatize or rent Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, massive cuts in food stamps.

If you don’t organize against that agenda, this country, especially for working families and the middle class, is going to be in very sorry shape.

Tavis: Before I let you go, one particular group in that larger group of working class Americans are our veterans. You are the chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

This story is developing even as we speak out of Phoenix, where we are told that apparently the VA hospital in Phoenix falsified some wait times, and there may be as many as 40 people who have died as a result.

What can you tell me about this breaking story?

Sanders: First of all, those are allegations.

Tavis: Right.

Sanders: Those are serious allegations.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Sanders: What we have done is right now, the VA inspector general is in Phoenix and I just spoke to the inspector general a few days ago. They have the resources to do a thorough investigation, which is what they have to do.

After that investigation, we will be holding one or more hearings on that issue to get to the truth of that situation. But I also want to say is that the VA has 151 medical centers, 900 primary care facilities, and hundreds of thousands of employees.

Tavis, by and large, according to a whole lot of independent studies, VA healthcare is good quality healthcare, and in fact is cutting edge in some areas. So we’re going to get to what’s wrong, but we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Tavis: Senator Sanders, as always, good to have you on the program. Thanks for sharing your insights, sir.

Sanders: Thank you.

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Last modified: May 27, 2014 at 11:58 am