MONTPELIER -- On Dec. 16, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took time to answer questions from the public on the social news and entertainment website Reddit.com.
In his AMA, which stands for "Ask Me Anything," Sanders answered 14 questions submitted by users of the popular website, which ranks content based on user voting. The topics covered in the AMA ranged from everything from poverty, to healthcare, to a potential presidential campaign in 2016.
One user, mattmccarty, asked Sanders about the recent controversy involving the NSA's data collection, "As one of the few who did not vote for the Patriot Act, how do you feel about the recent public outcry over the NSA and spying from the Snowden leaks. Do you feel we could pass legislation to overturn some of the things in the Patriot Act?"
Sanders responded that voting against the Patriot Act was "one of the better votes I ever cast," and that the NSA is "out of control and very clearly acting in an unconstitutional manner." He went on to say that, "Terrorism remains a serious issue and we must do all that we can to protect the American people, but we don't have to do it through a massive invasion of privacy rights or undermining the constitutional rights of the American people. I am going to be working as hard as I can to pass the strongest legislation possible to end the abuses of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. If we are a "free country," then we cannot have the U.S.government, or for that matter the private sector, invading the privacy rights or our citizens."
Sanders also reiterated that he has not yet decided whether or not to run for president in 2016, although he did note that if he did run, his campaign would focus on the "decline of the middle class, high unemployment, income and wealth inequality, and the fact that the United States is the only nation in the industrialized world not to guarantee health care for all people as a right." Sanders has been a staunch supporter of universal, single-payer healthcare, and is a major proponent of Green Mountain Care, which will create a universal healthcare system in Vermont in 2017.
"The bottom line is that our current health care system is dysfunctional," said Sanders, "We spend almost twice as much per person on health care as do the people of any other nation despite the fact that over 40 million Americans have no health insurance and many more are under insured. I voted for the Affordable Care Act because it will provide health insurance to millions more Americans and ends the obscenity of pre-existing conditions among other attributes. I also managed to get into that bill $11 billion to create hundreds of new community health centers throughout the country. Having said that, it is my strong view that the United States has to join the rest of the industrialized world and move toward a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system which guarantees health care as a right. I have introduced legislation to do just that."
Asked his thoughts on the current capitalistic system by user Paradoxiumm, Sanders said, "I applaud the recent statements by Pope Francis, in which he levels strong and appropriate criticism of unfettered capitalism. No. 1, we need to invest significantly in the social safety net to make sure that every person in this country lives with dignity. It is an international embarrassment, for example, that the U.S. has, by far, the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. No. 2, we need to move toward a national health care system which guarantees health care to all as a right and which, in fact, would be much more cost effective than the current dysfunctional system that we have. No. 3, we need to move toward a system of progressive taxation which makes certain that the wealthiest people in this country and the largest corporations start paying their fair share of taxes. Finally, we need real campaign finance reform which stops big money from buying elections."
He went on to say that a more democratized workplace is key to having a balanced economy and reducing the income gap, saying, "Democracy is not just the right to vote every two years. It also means having an impact on your job and where you work. For millions of Americans, a job means not only inadequate wages but also no control over how they spend 40 hours a week of their lives. They are, in truth, cogs in a machine over which they have no power. In Vermont, we have made modest progress in the concept of worker ownership and companies with have strong employee stock ownership plans. When I visit those companies, where workers really do have a say over the nature of their job it is clear to me that those workers feel much better about their work life. I have also introduced legislation which would make it easier for businesses to sell their companies to their own employees."
Sanders lashed out against the Koch Brothers, billionaire owners of Koch industries, who frequently fund far-right conservatives and think-tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, saying, "The American people must understand the extremist nature of the agenda of the Koch brothers and other right-wing Republicans. Their goal is nothing less than repealing every major piece of legislation passed in the last 80 years which protect the interests of the middle class, working families, the poor, the sick and the environment. These people do not simply want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, they want to get rid of these programs. Not only do they not want to raise the minimum wage, they want to abolish the concept of a minimum wage. They also want to do away with the EPA so that corporations can pollute our air, water and land with impunity. We need to organize aggressively against their incredible power. We need to overturn Citizens United. And we need real campaign finance reform which means public funding of elections."
Sanders also addressed the recent SNAP cuts, and potential future cuts to the program, saying, "In the United States of America in 2013 millions of Americans should not be worrying about where their next meal is coming from. Sadly, $5 billion added to the food stamp program in the stimulus package was not extended and my Republican colleagues in the House have passed a farm bill calling for a $40 billion cut in food stamps. This is outrageous and must be fought as hard as possible. With 46.5 million Americans living in poverty and almost one-quarter of American kids getting their nutrition through food stamps, we have got to work to make sure that all Americans have the nutrition they need to live healthy lives."
"The fact of the matter is that tragically this country is moving toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires have enormous power over the economic and political life of this country," said Sanders, "I am extraordinarily concerned about the obscene level of income and wealth inequality, which is worse today than at any time since the late 1920s. Further, it is totally absurd that in recent years the top 1 percent have earned 95 percent of all of the new income created in America. In order to turn this around, we need a level of grassroots activism that we have not seen for many decades. We need 10s of millions of people to become actively involved in the political process and to demand that Congress and the president respond to their needs and not just the needs of billionaires and large campaign contributors. So in a variety of ways we need to educate, we need to organize and we need ordinary people to get politically involved."
"There is no question that when we have today more people living in poverty than at any time in American history and when millions of families are struggling day by day just to keep their heads above water," said Sanders, "We need to move aggressively to protect the dignity and well being of the least among us. Tragically, with cuts in food stamps, unemployment compensation and other important benefits, we are moving in exactly the wrong direction. There are a number of ways by which we can make sure that every man, woman and child in our country has at least a minimum standard of living, and that is certainly something that must be explored."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB