Why Bernie Sanders Filibustered the Tax-Cut Deal


It was pretty strange to see Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Friday, a self-described socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, filibustering the tax-cut deal that President Obama struck with congressional Republicans. Congressional Democrats blew their opportunity to avert this outcome, and they have no one to blame for it but themselves. Before the election, Democrats were in the driver's seat on taxes: if they passed an extension of the Bush tax cuts on income below $250,000 in the House and brought it up in the Senate, they would have had the Republicans cornered. Either the Senate Republicans filibuster tax cuts and the Democrats accuse them of holding middle-class tax cuts hostage to tax cuts for the rich, or they let it through. The former would have benefited Democrats in the midterms; the latter would have benefited them next year, when the Republican Congress would either have had to abandon additional tax cuts for the rich or pass them again without the middle-class cuts to provide political cover. (Of course, Republicans might have then just added yet more middle-class tax cuts to the package to make them more popular.)

President Obama encouraged Congress to do this, but conservative Democrats in Congress feared that passing a partial tax-cut extension would leave them open to attacks that they were, in effect, raising taxes. Without having the necessary votes, they punted, and now their backs are against the wall. In that grim scenario Obama has secured for them a deal in which the inevitable tax-cut extension comes bundled with more socially and economically beneficial tax cuts and unemployment insurance. The ensuing economic stimulus should benefit all members of the president's party in 2012. And Democrats in Congress, liberal activists, and bloggers are whining about it.

Why? Look at the video or transcript of Sanders's nine-hour speech on the Senate floor from Friday. Sanders tells a story spanning decades of how we accumulated such a large debt and levels of inequality he equates to that of a Latin American banana republic. He blames Republican policies that have cut taxes on the wealthy while starving programs for the poor. And, he warns, money equals power: the rich won't just sit on that money, they'll spend it to buy influence over politics. As Sanders notes, CEOs of banks that were bailed out with taxpayer dollars will get millions under this deal, but last week he could not muster the votes to break a Republican filibuster against relief for disabled, impoverished veterans. Here's just a small portion of Sanders's stemwinder:

During the eight years of President Bush's administration, for a number of reasons—the primary reasons being the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, huge tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country, a Medicare Part D prescription-drug program, the Wall Street bailout, among other things, all of which were not paid for—we saw an almost doubling of the national debt ... It seems to me to be unconscionable—unconscionable—for my conservative friends and for everybody else in this country to be driving up this already too high national debt by giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires who don't need it.

Today, in terms of wealth as opposed to income, the top 1 percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent ... The top 1 percent has seen a tripling of the percentage of income they earn. Since the 1970s, the top 1 percent owning 23 percent of all income, more than the bottom 50 percent. The top 1 percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. That is not the foundation of a democratic society.

For the left, it's an analogous moment to the TARP bailouts for the right, which sparked the Tea Party movement. In and of itself it is something they should grudgingly accept, because the alternative—prolonged economic woes—is worse. And, indeed, the deal is expected to win a vote in the Senate today. But it stinks, and to liberals it feels like the final straw.