A budget panel composed of Democratic, Republican and independent members of the Senate and House is working on ways to avoid another government shutdown like the nightmare we all were just forced to endure.
As a member of that committee, I realize that our $17-trillion national debt and $700-billion deficit are serious problems that must be addressed. But I also realize that real unemployment remains close to 14 percent, that tens of millions of Americans with jobs are paid horrendously low wages, that more Americans are now living in poverty than ever before, that wealth and income inequality in the United States is greater than in any other major country and that the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider.
We must look at how we got here to make informed choices about where we go next.
How did we go from healthy surpluses to terrible deficits? It’s not that complicated. In 2001, President Bill Clinton left office with a $236 billion surplus. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office foresaw a 10-year budget surplus of $5.6 trillion, enough to erase the national debt by 2011. It didn’t work out that way.
Instead, under President George W. Bush, wars were launched in Afghanistan and Iraq without paying for them. The cost of those wars, estimated at up to $6 trillion, was tacked onto our national credit card. Then Congress passed and Bush signed an expensive prescription drug program. It also was not paid for. Then Bush and Congress handed out big tax breaks to the wealthy and large corporations. That drove down revenue. So did the recession in 2008, which was caused by a deregulated Wall Street.
All that turned big surpluses into big deficits.
Interestingly, today’s “deficit hawks” in Congress — Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and other conservative Republicans — voted for those measures that drove up deficits. Now that they’re worried about deficits again, they want to dismantle virtually every social program designed to protect working families, the elderly, children, the sick and the poor.
We cannot impose more austerity on people who are already suffering. Instead of talking about cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, we must end the absurdity of corporations not paying a nickel in federal income taxes.
At a time when multinational corporations and the wealthy are avoiding an estimated $100 billion a year in taxes by stashing money in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, we need to make them pay taxes just as middle-class Americans do.
Although Congress in January finally ended Bush’s tax breaks for the richest 1 percent, lower rates were left in place for the top 2 percent, those households earning between $250,000 and $450,000 a year.
That must end.
At a time when we now spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on defense, we can make judicious cuts in our armed forces without compromising our military capability.
And, frankly, Congress must listen better.
Some Republicans learned a hard lesson when the American people said it was wrong to shut down the government because some extreme right-wing members of Congress did not like the Affordable Care Act.
Poll after poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly do not want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Other polls make it clear that Americans believe that the wealthiest among us and large corporations must pay their fair share in taxes.
It is time to develop a federal budget that is moral and makes good economic sense.
It is time to develop a budget that invests in our future by creating jobs, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and expanding educational opportunities.
It is time for those who have so much to help with deficit reduction.
It is time that we listen to what the American people want.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.