Commentary: Deficit reduction requires shared sacrifice

United States SenateJune 2, 2011 

Congress and the White House are now focused on how we deal with our huge deficit - a crisis brought about over the last 10 years by two wars, tax breaks for the rich, the Wall Street bailout and a prescription drug program - all unpaid for. The deficit also increased as a result of the declining tax revenues during a current recession, caused by the greed and illegal behavior of Wall Street.

The debate over deficit reduction comes at an unusual moment in American economic history. While the middle class is in rapid decline and poverty is increasing, the wealthiest people in our country and largest corporations are doing phenomenally well. Over the last several decades almost all new income created in this country has gone to the top 1 percent, who now earn more income than the bottom 50 percent. Further, the United States now has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country with the top 400 individuals owning more wealth than the bottom 150 million.

Given the reality of record-breaking corporate profits and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, it should be a surprise to no one that every recently published poll suggests that the overwhelming majority of the American people want the deficit to be addressed through shared sacrifice. They do not believe that the deficit should be reduced solely on the backs of working families, the elderly, children, the sick and the poor - many of whom are already suffering as a result of the recession. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the Republicans have proposed.

The Republicans passed a budget in the House that is breathtaking in its degree of cruelty. It would end Medicare as we know it by giving senior citizens inadequate vouchers to buy health insurance from private companies. The result is that seniors would, on average, see their out-of-pocket expenses more than double - increasing by over $6,000 a year. It would also cut, over 10 years, $770 billion from Medicaid, vastly increasing the number of uninsured Americans, and threatening the long-term care of the elderly who live in nursing homes.

The Republican budget would also make savage cuts in education, nutrition, affordable housing, infrastructure, environmental protection and virtually every program that low- and moderate-income Americans depend upon.

Amazingly, while the Republican budget writers waged a vicious and unprecedented attack on the needs of working families, they do not ask the wealthiest people in this country, whose tax rates are now the lowest on record, to contribute one dime more for deficit reduction. Nor do they propose to do away with any of the loopholes that enable extremely profitable corporations (like General Electric, Bank of America, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and many more) to pay little or no federal income taxes. Quite the contrary! The Republican budget actually provides $1 trillion more in tax breaks over the next 10 years for the very rich.

Further, at a time when defense spending has more than tripled since 1997 and now consumes more than half of the discretionary budget, the Republican budget does nothing to reduce unnecessary military spending.

The Republican House budget is the most radical right-wing extremist budget ever passed in the modern history of our country, and the more the American people learn about it the more they are rejecting it. The question is, however: Where are the Democrats? Where is President Obama?

Will the president remain strong in his demand that any deficit reduction agreement include an end to Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy? Will he really fight to eliminate corporate tax loopholes? Will he end the absurd policies which allow the rich and large corporations to avoid paying tens of billions in taxes by establishing phony addresses in off-shore tax havens? Or, as he has done within the last year, will he give Republicans almost everything they want at the expense of ordinary Americans.

As Vermont's senator and a member of the Budget Committee, I will not support a plan to reduce the deficit that does not call for shared sacrifice. At least 50 percent of any deficit reduction plan must come from increased revenue from the wealthy and large corporations.

Instead of ending Medicare as we know it and making savage cuts to community health centers and children's health care programs, we must ask the top 2 percent of income earners, who currently pay the lowest upper-income tax rate on record, to start paying their fair share of taxes. Instead of making it harder for working families to send their kids to college, we must end the foreign tax shelters that enable the wealthy and large corporations to avoid paying tens of billions in U.S. taxes. Instead of making major cuts in job creating programs in infrastructure, public transportation and sustainable energy we must do away with a wide variety of loopholes that allow Wall Street executives, whose profits and compensation packages are soaring, to have a lower tax rate than middle class workers.

The deficit crisis is real and must be addressed. But it cannot be solved on the backs of the weak and vulnerable. Every segment of our society, including those who have money and power, must contribute and must sacrifice.

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By Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

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