Senate Democrats have reached an agreement on a $3.5 trillion budget proposal that would dramatically expand Medicare, provide for paid family leave, subsidize child care, make community college free, and fund meaningful—if still insufficiently—climate crisis initiatives. It’s not the $6 trillion plan that Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was angling for. But Sanders says that if this plan is enacted it will be “the most significant piece of legislation passed since the Great Depression.”
Historians of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, which saw the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, might quibble with that description. But what Sanders and more moderate Democrats on the Budget Committee have agreed on definitely is, as the chairman says, “a big deal.”
Now, however, comes the hard part. This plan isn’t going to attract any Republican support. It will only pass via the reconciliation process, with 50 Democratic votes and a tie-breaking additional vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. For that to happen, this budget is going to need broad popular support. And the way to secure broad popular support is by making it clear this plan will be paid for by taxing corporations and billionaires.
Getting the taxation part right is essential—not just because many of the moderates are demanding that the plan be “fully paid for” but because the American people need to understand that this very wealthy country has the resources to fund a fair and equitable future for all Americans.
“Over the last 16 months, since the formal beginning of the pandemic lockdown, the combined wealth of 713 U.S. billionaires has surged by $1.8 trillion, a gain of almost 60 percent. The total combined wealth of U.S. billionaires increased from $2.9 trillion on March 18, 2020 to $4.7 trillion on July 9, 2021,” explains Chuck Collins, who directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good for the Institute for Policy Studies. “Billionaire wealth has steadily increased since 1990, but one-third of their wealth gains have occurred during the pandemic. U.S. billionaire wealth increased 19-fold over the last 31 years, from an inflation-adjusted $240 billion in 1990 to $4.7 trillion in 2021.”
In other words, the money is there.
It just needs to be put to work for the American people.
This is the key to selling a bold budget plan. Republicans will gripe about the price tag, and weak-willed Democrats will be inclined to listen to that griping. But if the voters are aware of how much money can be obtained by taxing the rich and multinational corporations, the sentiment for substantial spending—not just $3.5 trillion but something closer to the $6 trillion that Sanders and others have discussed—will be sufficient for a win.
To create that awareness, Democrats must talk about not just the spending but also about progressive—and redistributive—taxing.
Democrats won’t hesitate to discuss the programs their plan will create, and the challenges it seeks to address. When Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) briefed his caucus on the budget outline Tuesday, Senate aides report, he focused on major proposals to add new dental, vision, and hearing benefits to Medicare; guarantee family and medical leave; expand home care and community-based services for the elderly and people with disabilities; and cut prescription drug costs. He talked about extending the child tax credit, pouring money into universal pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-old children, making higher education either free or more affordable for millions of students. He talked about nutrition assistance and funding affordable housing. He talked about a range of initiatives designed to meet President Biden’s climate goals of 80 percent clean electricity and percent economy-wide carbon emissions by 2030.
All good. If, perhaps, not good enough—especially on the climate crisis, where the Sunrise Movement says “a $1 trillion investment per year over the next 10 years [is] what science demands to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs.” But what’s vitally important now is to deconstruct the arguments of the deficit hawks in both parties, and to deliver a message that there is more than enough money not just to rebuild our infrastructure but to guarantee health care, housing, and education as human rights, and to save the planet.
One of the most popular equations in American politics concludes: Working families don’t need to pay more, but plutocrats do. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from last year found that 64 percent of voters agreed that “the very rich should contribute an extra share of their total wealth each year to support public programs.”
Sanders gets this. Discussing the budget plan Tuesday, he said:
This is in our view a pivotal moment in American history. And for a very long time, the American people have seen the very rich getting richer and government developing policies, which allow them to pay, in some cases, not a nickel in federal income taxes. They’ve seen corporations make huge profits—in some cases, they’re not paying a nickel in taxes. And what this legislation says, among many, many other things, is that those days are gone.
The wealthy and large corporations are going to start paying their fair share of taxes, so that we can protect the working families of this country. And all over America, in Vermont, Washington, Michigan, wherever it may be, your mom and dad going to work but they can’t afford childcare; they’re scared to death about whether or not they can afford to send their kids to college: and they go to work over a bridge which is crumbling. And what this legislation does is says we’re going to create millions of good paying union jobs rebuilding this country not only from a physical infrastructure, but dealing with the human needs of our people which are many, and which have long been neglected.
That’s how to sell this budget, and the bigger budgets that will be needed to create a fair and functional United States. Democrats should not be cautious. They should boldly declare, as did Franklin Roosevelt at the height of his personal and political popularity, that it is time to tax the rich. “People know that vast personal incomes come not only through the effort or ability or luck of those who receive them, but also because of the opportunities for advantage which Government itself contributes,” said FDR in 1935. “Therefore, the duty rests upon the Government to restrict such incomes by very high taxes.”