Sen. Bernie Sanders' Eight-Hour Soliloquy
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
At 10:25 last Friday morning, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont stood up to make a speech on the Senate floor.
Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): Mr. President, as I think everyone knows, the president of the United States, President Obama, and the Republican leadership have reached an agreement on a very significant tax bill. But in my view, the agreement that they reached is a bad deal for the American people. I think we can do better.
And you can call what I'm doing today whatever you want. You can call it a filibuster. You can call it a very long speech. I'm not here to set any great records or to make a spectacle. I am simply here today to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have got to do a lot better than this agreement provides.
CONAN: Senator Sanders continued for eight and a half hours. His name trended number one on Twitter throughout much of that afternoon. He even got his own hash tag, FiliBernie. Senator Sanders joins us now from the Senate gallery in the Capitol. Nice to have you with us today.
Sen. SANDERS: Good to be with you.
CONAN: And what was it like to talk for eight and a half hours?
Sen. SANDERS: It was a long talk. Got tired.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. SANDERS: You know, for me, it was an opportunity to do what sometimes is very hard for a senator to do is go beyond an eight-second TV soundbite or brief radio show and really talk about why the middle class of this country is collapsing, why the gap between the very rich and everybody else is going - growing wider and why many, many people in this country are worried about our future and what happens to their kids, and to put that within the context of why the agreement signed by the president and the Republican leadership is not a good deal for the American people.
CONAN: As you know, that agreement passed the Senate yesterday with, I think, over 80 votes and goes before the House today, where it's got tougher sledding but it looks like, one way or another, it's likely to be law.
Sen. SANDERS: The folks, the Democrats in the House, are putting up a fight. And I think what they are saying very loudly and clearly is what I believe - is that it is basically absurd to be giving huge tax breaks to the richest people in this country, including many millionaires and billionaires at the same time as we have a record-breaking deficit of $13.7 trillion national debt, at the same time as we are ignoring many enormous problems facing our country, including a crumbling infrastructure, an educational system which needs a lot of support, and the fact that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth.
So I think what some of the progresses in the House are doing is saying, excuse us. The American people don't think it's appropriate to get tax breaks to people who don't need it, and we're going to fight that. And I support what they're doing.
CONAN: There are some rules that you had to obey. You said, you can call it a filibuster if you want. Technically, the Senate was not voting until yesterday, so it wasn't a filibuster. You weren't blocking a vote but, nevertheless, still a very long speech. And you are required, as I understand it under the rules - I guess we all remember "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" - you have to stand the whole time?
Sen. SANDERS: Yes, that's correct.
CONAN: And are you allowed any breaks at all?
Sen. SANDERS: You have to stand. You have to stay on the Senate floor. You can't eat and that's what you got to do.
CONAN: And are you allowed to yield to a colleague?
Sen. SANDERS: You can and that happened early on. Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator Sherrod Brown were around and we had a dialogue, which I thought was pretty productive.
CONAN: Did you plan to go that long when you started?
Sen. SANDERS: No, I really didn't. I think probably the longest speech that I've ever given in my life was about maybe an hour, hour and a half, when I was mayor of Burlington, I suspect. So I had no idea how long I would go.
But what ended up happening is once you get going and you talk about what's happening in this country in a way that I think many people don't often hear - for example, when you raise issues about whether it is morally appropriate in this country to continue a situation where the top one percent earns 23 and a half percent of all income in this country - that's more than the bottom 50 percent - where the United States today has - the top one percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
And then I - you talk about that from a moral perspective and from an economic perspective. We talk about - and had the time to do that -about these CEOs of large corporations, General Electric, all the rest talking about how wonderful it is, all of the opportunities available in China, while they throw American workers out on the street, move abroad, hire people for 50 cents an hour, bring their products back in this country.
Then you know what? Then when they needed a bailout - and GE got a $16 billion bailout during the - from the Fed during the Wall Street collapse - they didn't go to China for that bailout. They went to the taxpayers of the United States of America. And you know, it gave me the opportunity to talk about the crooks on Wall Street - and I use that work advisedly - who today after wrecking our economy, driving us into the worst recession since the Great Depression, today earning more money than they ever did while millions of people remain unemployed as a result of their efforts. People have lost their homes, lost their savings. And what's happening to these guys? Are they being prosecuted? No. They're actually doing quite well, better than they did before the recession.
So it's an opportunity to go into some length about various aspects of what's happening to the middle class and the fact that in many ways this country is moving, in my view, toward an oligarchy in which very few people on the top have incredible wealth and power and they're using their power, both economically with billions of dollars a year going to lobbyists right here on Capitol Hill, as well as politically now as a result, as you know, of the Citizens United decision, you're going to have a handful of billionaires sitting around dividing up the country and deciding which candidates they're going to support, not - or not support, or oppose. And they don't even have to be disclosed.
So I think the reason that that speech kind of caught fire was not just because many people think that the agreement struck between the president and Republicans is a bad deal for the middle class. I think it began to touch on a nerve of the power of big money in this country, something that we don't talk about very often in the media or, frankly, on the floor of the Senate.
CONAN: Do you think it changed any minds?
Sen. SANDERS: Well, I think it changed the minds of people in the United States of America.
CONAN: Well, senators were presumably your immediate target.
Sen. SANDERS: Well, not really. No. I have to tell you the truth, that's not accurate. My immediate goal was to talk to the American people because I think the only way you're going to make change, when we have an aroused citizenry, when millions of people stand up.
And what I said during my remarks is, please call your senator, please call your members of your House. Tell them whether you think it's a good idea to give tax breaks to billionaires, people who'll be getting over $100,000 a year in tax breaks at the same time as millions of Americans can't afford child care for their kids or college education for their sons and daughters. I was talking to the American people to put pressure on members of Congress, more - frankly more so than members of Congress.
CONAN: I think we're beginning to get an idea of how you could go on that long. There have been famous long speeches in the Senate -filibusters, unlike yours. But Strom Thurmond, I think, when he was protesting the Civil Rights Act of 1957, read from the phone book to use up the time. You did not do that.
Sen. SANDERS: No...
CONAN: You stuck to the issues.
Sen. SANDERS: My goal was not to stand there and waste time and read from the phone book. My goal was to do the best that I can to give people my view as to what is happening in this country. And I think it's a perception that is in fact shared by millions of Americans. You don't hear it terribly often, again, on the floor of the Senate. You only hear it very often in the media.
But I think many, many people in this country are outraged by the power of big money over the political and economic life of this country. And they wonder why. They're sitting around wondering why this country is gradually moving in the direction of a Third World nation if we don't turn it around, in terms of our crumbling infrastructure, the fact that our kids are falling behind students around the world in terms of educational capabilities, and yet at the same time people on top are doing phenomenally well, owning more and more of the nation's wealth and capturing more and more of the nation's income and using that power, politically, to get more and more and more.
And I would say, you know, if you want to know what the theme of the speech is, it was greed. It was uncontrolled greed on the part of big money. And to ask: When does it end? How much do they need? Is earning 23 and a half percent of all income for the top one percent, is that enough? Apparently it's not. At what point does it end?
What happens to the middle class when we lose 48,000 factories in the last 10 years and almost 30 percent of our manufacturing base(ph)? Why is it that you can't - it's very difficult to buy a product manufactured in the United States of America today. Those are some of the issues that we need serious debate on. And I hope that by raising those issues, it can drive some discussion.
CONAN: Yet presumably those issues could have been raised in one of those hour and a half speeches you may have made when you were mayor of Burlington or maybe a two-hour speech. Clearly the purpose of a speech that long was to attract attention simply on the length of the speech itself. It was a stunt, no?
Sen. SANDERS: No. I mean, one of the interesting things is that often I'm asked about the speech and people say, well, didn't you have to urinate? Weren't you hungry? Didn't you get tired? Because people focus on those aspects of the filibuster rather than the media talking about the real issues. So what I'm trying to drive at - in the speech and directly - to millions of people, I suspect, who at one point or another turned on, are the issues that I'm raising with you today. Is it appropriate that the top one percent of the people in our county earn more income than the bottom 50 percent? Is that appropriate? Well, let's have a good discussion on it.
And I was able to raise that issue to millions of Americans who, I think, responded. And they said no, there's something wrong going on in this country. I mean, you tell me. I mean, that's what I asked the American people. Tell me, does anybody think it make sense to give, on average, $100,000 a year of tax break to people who make more than a million dollars a year?
CONAN: Senator, as you know, most people may agree with you. I don't know about that. But there are certainly are people who do think it's appropriate.
Sen. SANDERS: Yes, they are. I think that they are in the minority. And I think that is why I'm trying to arouse the American people to oppose this deal. No question. There are some people who do think that it is appropriate to give tax breaks to billionaires and drive up the national debt. I don't think that they are in the majority.
CONAN: We're talking with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who spoke for eight and a half hours on the Senate floor last Friday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And what do say to - you are independent but you caucus with the Democratic Party - what do you say to those Democrats who held their nose and said, well, yeah, there's a lot, part of this that I don't necessarily agree with, but it's, you know, we don't want to taxes to go up on middle class people either on January 1st; the president's right; they're being held hostage by the Republicans, who were recalcitrant; let's just vote for this thing and go at it again in two years?
Sen. SANDERS: Well, I do understand the position that people - Democrats and everybody else - are being put in, because nobody wants the middle class to be paying more in taxes. I don't know anybody who thinks that it's not appropriate to extend unemployment benefits to two million people who are about to lose them in the midst of a terrible recession.
The point that I was making is I think that the president reached an agreement with the Republicans much, much too early. May you - might we have to compromise? Yeah, maybe we do. But you gotta wage the fight before you compromise. You gotta take the case to the American people, and we didn't do that. And my criticism was that a deal was reached by the administration and the Republican leadership not involving members of the caucus, certainly not involving the American people.
And the main point that I want to make is, why is it always that progressives have got to compromise? Why aren't the Republicans compromising? The narrative that we're seeing right now is Republicans are firm, they're not going compromise. They are saying that we have got to lower taxes on the estate tax, which only applies to the top three-tenths of one percent of the American people, and they're not going to budge on it. But we are supposed to budge all of the time. And I think -my criticism is that if the president had taken that fight to the American people, I think we could have put the Republicans on the defensive.
Let them tell the American people why we drive up the national debt that our kids are going to have to pay off in order to give huge tax breaks to the top three-tenths of one percent. Ninety-nine point seven percent of people don't gain a nickel. Those are the battles that we have got to fight. And if you keep compromising on that, it's only going to be the start(ph) for what it comes down next year, when the Republicans control the House.
You know what's going to happen? They're going to go after Social Security. One of the more onerous provisions in this agreement was the so-called one-year payroll holiday, which will divert $112 billion from the Social Security trust fund.
In my view - I hope I'm wrong on this - next year it will be extended again and then again and then again, and then what you're talking about, according to major senior citizen organizations, is really the beginning of the end for Social Security.
Is this a good idea? Social Security has worked wonderfully for 75 years. Why are we trying to dismember it and cut funding for it right now? So those are the issues that we want to take to the American people, and the president didn't give us that opportunity.
CONAN: Yesterday Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, proposed that the entire START treaty be read aloud, as is allowed under the law of the procedures of the Senate - his purpose, clearly, to delay debate on that measure and let time tick away on the lame duck session.
But how is what he's proposing to do, denounced by Democrats as ridiculous, but how is what he's trying to do different from what you did, eating up eight and a half hours of Senate time...
Sen. SANDERS: Well, I think it's very different. Senator DeMint has every right, under the Senate rules, to waste huge amounts of time by having - you know, I don't know how long the bill is, a thousand, two thousand pages - read. It's stupid. If Senator DeMint wants to come to the floor and speak for a very long period of time as to why he is opposed to the START treaty, I respect that. I would respect that.
Historically, that's what the Senate rules are about, that senators can come down and in fact speak at great length. Does Senator DeMint have the right to ask that the entire treaty be read? Sure. I, you know, that's his right to do it if he wants to do it, but I don't think that makes a lot of sense.
That is, I think, very different from somebody standing up and saying, look, I'm going to stand here for five hours or 10 hours and tell you why I am opposed to the START treaty. Now, I support the START treaty, but if DeMint wants to oppose it, let him say it.
But this is clearly just a waste of time. And if he wants to do it, I guess he can do it. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.
CONAN: Senator Sanders, thanks very much for your time today, and we appreciate it.
Sen. SANDERS: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, joined us from the Senate gallery in the Capitol. On Monday we'll hear a counterview on the tax deal from Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who used to write speeches for President Bush.
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