Bernie on the Budget Committee

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Those discouraged that Bernie Sanders was not appointed labor secretary can take solace in his role as chair of the senate budget committee. There he can accomplish far more for working people than he ever could at the labor department. The proof is staring us in the face – Sanders just shepherded the $1.9 trillion covid relief bill through reconciliation for Biden. And when Biden made noises about a $15 minimum wage not gracing the final legislation, Sanders countered that he had “a room full of lawyers” working on ensuring that it does.

If Sanders can prevent the Dems from reneging on hiking the minimum wage this will be a stupendous flex of working-class muscle. Raising the minimum wage is wildly popular, especially with people who toil for less than $15 per hour. If it does get raised – and on February 8 Nancy Pelosi, among others made sure to include it in the House reconciliation bill – it will be because Sanders is on the budget committee. This will not please Republican donors.

In 2016, former speaker of the House and radical right-winger Paul Ryan warned his colleagues of exactly this scenario for the GOP: “If we lose the senate, do you know who becomes chairman of the senate budget committee? A guy named Bernie Sanders. Ever heard of him? That’s what we’re dealing with here if we lose control of the senate.” Ryan’s remarks, Vox reported, “ricocheted around the web and national media” and backfired, boosting Sanders’ fundraising.

Sanders as chair of the budget committee has a mighty tool at his disposal – reconciliation, which the GOP has wielded ferociously to cut taxes on billionaires and would love to use to hack the social safety net to ribbons. Now that weapon is in Bernie Sanders’ hands. He has already used it for very different purposes and will likely do so again. This is the radical right-wing’s worst nightmare.

Which is excellent news for most people. It meant the Dems could forgo GOP support for the budget resolution and thus passed $1400 individual relief payments, a $400 weekly unemployment supplement, extended unemployment payments, $30 billion for a rent and utility assistance fund, $350 billion for cities and states, $130 billion for reopening schools, $160 billion for vaccine testing and equipment and more. Dems deployed reconciliation to pass this bill by 51 senate votes, instead of the 60 they would have needed otherwise. Of course, the bill’s final text still has to be hashed out and it’s not expected to pass in its final form until March 14.

Sanders can also use his budget chairmanship to give Dems an occasional reality check. As they debated restricting people eligible for the already shrunken $1400 relief checks, Sanders tweeted: “Unbelievable…in other words, working class people who got checks from Trump would not get them from Biden. Brilliant.” Bad enough the Dems reneged on the original promise of $2000 checks, chiseling them down to $1400. Now they say someone who earns $55,000 a year can’t get that? This is called political suicide.

But then on February 8, the House rejected this hari-kari, proposing to send the payments to Americans earning up to $75,000 annually. Sanders applauded this move, but a key conservative Democratic senator, Joe Manchin was mum on the subject. He’s on the record as supporting lowering the income threshold to $50,000 annual income for those who receive government checks. Since the senate is evenly divided between Dems and the GOP, his vote is needed to pass the relief bill. And he is not the only conservative Dem senator. It’s hard to believe these pols would do something as wildly unpopular as holding up relief checks for their constituents, but stranger things have happened.

Sanders told CNN on January 31 that he “did not rule out working with Republicans but said that he has not heard better ideas from them so far.” In fact, the only brainstorm the 10 “moderate” GOP senators who met with Biden had was slashing the total relief bill by two thirds. Fortunately, this was not acceptable to Biden.

Biden was open to passing a covid relief bill with bipartisan support. But that did not gel, which was where Bernie’s perch on the budget committee proved critical. On February 3, the House passed the bill on a nearly party-line vote, which allowed reconciliation. The plan was that if the GOP continued to try to throttle aid to the needy, the Dems could do the job alone, with a simple majority vote. That’s what happened.

Speaking of the GOP, Sanders told CNN: “If they want to criticize me for helping to feed children who are hungry or senior citizens in this country who are isolated and alone and don’t have enough food, they can criticize me…We can chew bubble gum and walk at the same time,” he added, referring to moving the relief bill and Trump’s simultaneous impeachment trial. On the GOP’s use of reconciliation, Sanders said: “You did it, we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna do it to protect ordinary people, not just the rich and the powerful.”

But there is a problem: the Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010, or PAYGO, a fitting alias for austerity. Under that law, new legislation that increases debt, as the covid relief bill does, causes cuts in some social safety net programs like Medicare. It also triggers cuts in farm subsidies. According to NBC, “the size of the reductions…would depend on the size of the package, but they’d be significant even if the price tag fell under $1 trillion. Social Security and low-income programs would be exempt.”

Sanders’ spokesman told NBC that the senator would strive to prevent these cuts, and that when the GOP deployed budget reconciliation to shred taxes for the rich, that “triggered $25 billion in Medicare cuts. But Democrats joined Republicans to prevent the cuts from taking effect.” Don’t expect the Scrooges in the GOP to return the favor, however.

Sanders has a long history of opposition to PAYGO. Two years ago, he said: “I am concerned that the concept of PAYGO will make it harder for congress to address the many crises facing our working families.” One of his former advisors, Stephanie Kelton, explained that PAYGO “reinforces the notion that if you vote for Democrats, the first thing they’re going to do is prioritize budget outcomes over human ones.” And back in 2017, Sanders called PAYGO “a law that never should have been passed.”

PAYGO is Pelosi’s law, if it is anyone’s, and according to Ari Rabin-Havt, writing in December’s Jacobin, “by design PAYGO specifically constrains progressive policies…legislation such as spending on green infrastructure would be held up as members debated how to ‘pay’ for them. Yet at the same time, tax cuts and massive increases in Pentagon spending are never placed under the same constraints.”

So yes, it’s great that Sanders chairs the budget committee. His position there entails unprecedented power to pass laws that benefit ordinary people. But he also has to cope with an institutional conservatism that has stacked the deck against the middle and working class, often with the help of Democratic congressional leaders. Changing that will require more than one left-wing chairman of the budget committee.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.