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Opinion: Why Bernie Sanders is wrong

Two Democratic senators’ opposition to the massive ‘Build Back Better’ spending package represents the wishes of their constituents, not their party

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks to reporters.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks to reporters as Democrats work on a way to lift the debt limit and find a way to pass President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. Sanders was critical of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, a key holdout vote on the Biden overhaul.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

“It is wrong and it is really not playing fair that one or two people think that they should be able to stop what 48 members of the Democratic caucus want …” — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

What Sen. Bernie Sanders found so unfair in a news conference this week is that two Democrats, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, apparently are more interested in serving their constituents — the people who elect them — than in serving their party’s grand ambitions.“

That this is so hardly qualifies as rocket science.

A survey by Data Orbital found only 45.6% of Arizona voters in favor of the $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” spending bill Sanders, an independent, and the left wing of the Democratic Party he caucuses with so desperately wants. 

“These results clearly show why Sen. Sinema is holding out against pressure from the progressive left,” Data Orbital quoted pollster George Khalaf as saying. “She is listening to the constituency of voters that elected her in 2018 — moderate suburban voters.”

In West Virginia, a poll by Americans for Tax Fairness, a group that supports higher taxes for big corporations and the wealthy, found support for the spending plan mixed, with 48% in favor and 47% against. But the state voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2020, which likely weighs on Manchin and his decisions.

This is how democracy should work in a republic. Politicians want to be reelected, so they listen to the people who might vote for them, not what people want in another state, like Vermont. In matters this big, party often takes at least second place.

Sanders says the American people want this mammoth spending bill. He’s right, in the sense that polls show support for it nationwide. But senators aren’t elected to represent the entire nation, only their own state.

In this case, we should be grateful for a republic.

The “Build Back Better” bill fills 2,465 pages, making it unlikely many lawmakers have read it all. But enough is known to make fiscally responsible people recoil. Its stated aim is to help low-income people, but much of it showers gifts on the wealthy, as well.

Take, for instance, the plan to provide free tuition to two-year community colleges. The government already provides Pell Grants and other aids that help pay for this tuition for low-income people. As I reported in a column last May, the nonprofit College Board recently released a report that concluded, “Since 2009-10, first-time full-time undergraduate students at public two-year colleges have been receiving enough grant aid on average to cover their tuition and fees.”

Free tuition, then, would primarily help the children of wealthier families who already could afford it. Beyond that, other countries have found that free tuition greatly increases enrollment, putting strains on higher education. Evidence also suggests it reduces graduation rates.

The package would give child care assistance for children up to 5 years old to every family that applies. The Wall Street Journal calls this “really a universal basic income, which will discourage work and cost $1 trillion.”  

This benefit would be available for single parents making up to $75,000, and for couples earning up to $150,000. 

The package would expand Medicare, which is predicted to run out of funds by 2026. Manchin has said he would rather fix the long-term fiscal health of the program first.

These are just a few of the things the package would do. And, while it’s being sold as a $3.5 trillion plan, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has estimated its true cost will be north of $5 trillion.

Supporters say it will be paid for by tax hikes on the wealthy and on corporations, but isn’t it odd how members of Congress never talk about reducing the current budget deficit, which is about $3 trillion, before adding more spending?

Sanders has called this “the most consequential piece of legislation” since the New Deal. While this may be true, some economists, like Harold Cole at the University of Pennsylvania and Lee Ohanian at UCLA, would argue this isn’t good. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed years ago, they used data from the 1930s to show convincingly that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal “prolonged the Depression by seven years.”

That’s hardly a recipe for success in the 21st century.

A few years before his death, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman agreed to let me interview him for a few minutes. Among other things, he joked that Americans should stay away from socialism because we’re not nearly as good at it as Europeans.

Today, Sweden’s government has reported a surplus for the month of August, according to the Swedish website riksgalden.se, and its annual deficit in 2020 was 3.1% of GDP. The U.S. deficit currently is 13% of GDP. The joke’s on us. 

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist.