“When we took the majority in the Senate earlier this year, the American people entrusted us with a great responsibility: to make their lives better,” declared Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, when he launched the Democratic caucus’s $3.5 trillion budget plan. Republicans were aghast at the prospect. “This is one of the most radical proposals in our nation’s history,” griped Florida Senator Marco Rubio, even as the details of the plan were being developed. Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders says it will be “the most consequential piece of legislation for working people, the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor since FDR and the New Deal of the 1930s.” The activists who have been working on the critical issues that Democrats say the legislation will address are excited, nervous, and determined to influence the budget-writing process and the debates that will extend from it this fall. Here’s some of what they have to say about initiatives that are expected to be included in the plan.
Paid Family and Medical Leave
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” says Dawn Huckelbridge, the director of Paid Leave for All. “We are one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have paid leave on the books, and this is the year when that can change.” Decades of organizing have framed the demands, and, she says, “the pandemic accelerated it all, put it under a magnifying glass. There’s always been a high level of support. The pandemic provided the sense of urgency.” Sanders says paid leave will be a major component of the budget. What’s needed? Huckelbridge is pushing for “12 weeks of leave time that’s available to all working people and is comprehensive”—with an inclusive description of families and sufficient wage replacement, so that taking time off is possible and available to all working Americans.
“Imagine a world where millions of people, recent high school graduates and middle-aged alike, could work on projects protecting communities from sea-level rise, taking care of the elderly, distributing fresh produce in food deserts, restoring wetlands, and rebuilding after climate disasters, while getting paid a living wage,” says Nikayla Jefferson, an activist with the Sunrise Movement. “That’s the world we are marching for.” The Sunrise Movement is in favor of the roughly $132 billion, five-year plan to employ 1.5 million Americans that was proposed by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Like the New Deal’s Civilian Conservative Corps, the Climate Corps would provide employment for transformational work. It’s a vital step toward what the Sunrise Movement wants to see Congress do to save the planet.
The Care Agenda
A decade ago, Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, helped launch Caring Across Generations, a bold movement to address the nation’s crumbling care infrastructure. With strong union support, she and her allies got President Joe Biden to endorse a $400 billion plan to invest in caregiving, with a particular focus on expanding Medicaid and providing fair wages and benefits for caregivers—86 percent of whom are women, a majority of whom are women of color. Now she’s working to assure that the funding is included in Congress’s budget. “It’s a game changer,” she says. “Talk about a high-leverage way of raising wages for women and women of color. It’s so direct.”
“Eighty-three percent of all likely voters support expanding Medicare to cover vision, hearing, and dental care,” says Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, the convening organization of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition. Sanders says such an expansion will be a core component of the budget plan. “As part of that struggle we recognize that steps along the way to an improved Medicare for All system must be fought for any time we have an opening,” says Lawson. “We have an opening right now to get millions more covered by a Medicare system that is expanded to include vision, hearing, and dental benefits, allowing Medicare to negotiate substantially lower drug prices for everyone in this country and build the foundation of a long-term care system.”
Taxing Corporations and the Rich
Amy Hanauer, the executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, sees the budget as a “long overdue” opportunity to achieve fairer taxation. Biden and Senate Democrats have highlighted the need for a plan to reverse the Trump administration’s giveaways to corporations and the billionaire class. If the pandemic taught us anything, Hanauer says, “it’s the cost that inequality has wrought for this country and how it’s undermining our ability to function as a democracy.” Noting that polls show overwhelming support for making corporations and the rich pay their fair share, she says, “Fairer tax policy is a great way to address inequality and get the money we need to address human needs.”