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Sen. Bernie Sanders on ACORN, Healthcare and Afghanistan

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We speak to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history. Last week, in response to the Defund ACORN Act, he proposed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that focuses on defense contractors who receive billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Sanders joins us to talk about ACORN, healthcare and the US occupation of Afghanistan. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We’re joined now from Washington, DC by independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He is the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history. Last week, in response to the Defund ACORN Act, he proposed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that focuses on defense contractors who receive billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Senator Bernie Sanders joins us now from Washington, DC.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


Good to be with you, Juan.


Your reaction, first of all, to the stampede of attacks on ACORN, and what you are trying to do with the bill that you’ve introduced?


Well, let’s be clear. I mean, ACORN was caught — some employees of ACORN were caught on tape saying incredibly stupid things, outrageous things. They were fired. They should have been fired. But that tape gets up on Fox, and it’s repeated over and over again, and without any kind of hearings, without any kind of process, suddenly this organization, which has done a lot of good work at the grassroots level in voter registration, dealing with affordable banking, housing, and so forth, suddenly, like this, they are defunded. I was one of the members of the Senate who voted against that, because I think you didn’t have any kind of process out there. It was absolutely unfair.

Meanwhile, we did a little bit of research, and my staff discovered that the three largest defense contractors — and we focused on defense because we’re in the middle of the defense appropriations bill — the three largest defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing — who have received over the years hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars, not the $53 million that ACORN had received, but hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars, these three companies alone, just these three, have been involved in 109 instances of misconduct. They had paid $2.9 billion to the government for fines or settlements. So, this was not a two-minute videotape recording a stupid, absurd conversation. This is where courts of law or settlements have taken place, where these people have pled guilty or acknowledged misdeeds and paid $2.9 billion since 1995.

Now, I asked myself, gee, the Congress defunded ACORN, how much attention has been paid to this systemic fraud that goes on year after year after year? And after awhile, it’s not hard to figure out that for these large corporations, this is a way of doing business. This is not an accident; this is part of the business model.

So what I did is introduced a fairly modest amendment, because I wanted to get the ball rolling, which essentially says that, number one, we want some numbers as to exactly how much money not just these three, but all of the defense contractors have received, who have over the years engaged in fraudulent activities. And we wanted to begin the process by having the inspector general at the DOD tell us how we’re going to go forward penalizing these groups. Now, the irony here is nobody really thinks that you could defund these people tomorrow, because if you defund them, you would not have a military left, because these are the people who supply our weapons and our other services. But the point has got to be made that, just as in Wall Street, just as with the healthcare industry, there is a huge amount of corporate fraud, which we as a Congress certainly are not addressing in any substantive way.


But what about this issue, with many corporations, not just defense contractors, but other corporations in banking and in securities, that once they are caught by government regulators involved in some kind of wrongdoing, simply pay a fine, as you say, the cost of doing business, and move on, and somehow they may remove a particular official, but it’s never considered to be part of the method of operation of the company?


Absolutely right. Within the healthcare bill, we have got an amendment in which doubles the fines given to people in the healthcare industry. And one drug company after another — it’s not just Pfizer; you name the drug company, they’ve been found guilty of ripping off the government.

And the point that we should underline here, Juan, is certainly over the previous eight years under George Bush, we have every reason to believe that there has not been any strong look at corporate fraud. I mean, the Bush people were working — turned their backs to all the misdeeds of corporate America. So, it is quite possible that what we’re looking at is really the tip of the iceberg.

But the bottom line here is, what we’re going to demand is that the Obama administration, the Attorney General, the inspector generals in the DOD and in other agencies, start taking a hard look. And where people commit major crimes against the American people, in terms of fraud, or in some cases with the Department of Defense, they are producing products which they know to be deficient products, and in some cases that has taken the lives of many men and women in the armed forces, we have got to go after these guys very strongly. When necessary, you throw them in jail. You make the fines so large that they can no longer consider this, quote-unquote, “a cost of doing business.”


And the reason why so much focus has been on ACORN? As you say, there are clearly some errors that the organization has made, but the effort of some Republican leaders, as well as some of the media companies, Fox News and others, to target ACORN, why do you think that’s happening?


Well, I think it’s fairly obvious. I mean, this is not — ACORN has been attacked for years. It was part of the McCain campaign. ACORN has in many ways been a successful grassroots organization trying to bring low-income people together. So those are the kinds of groups — and then ACORN becomes caught into the focus of the right-wing echo chamber — it’s Fox, it’s the Washington Times, it’s the radio stations — and people focus on ACORN. So I think that’s primarily a political attack. Not to say that ACORN has not done stupid things in its history.

But I find it ironic, again, that an organization which has received $53 million, ACORN, over a fifteen-year period, is attacked over and over again, but large defense contractors, which have, in a sense, pled guilty and paid $2.9 billion in fines, having received hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars, their misdeeds are somehow ignored. The hypocrisy is extraordinary.


Well, Senator Sanders, I’d like to switch topics for a little bit and talk to you about the situation right now in the Senate with healthcare reform. It seems now that the Senate Finance Committee is really poised now to move finally on a healthcare reform bill. And your sense of where it is in the Senate right now and what the prospects are for some kind of a public option coming out of the Senate?


Well, I should tell you that yesterday evening some of us met with the Leader, Senate Leader, Harry Reid, to make it very clear that we believe, absolutely, that any kind of legislation coming out of the Senate has to have a strong public option.

Now, I should tell you, Juan, I, myself, believe at the end of the day, if we’re serious about comprehensive, universal, cost-effective healthcare in this country, the only way that I know we can do that is through a Medicare-for-all single-payer program, which will eliminate many hundreds of billions of dollars of waste and corporate profiteering and excessive CEO salaries that are endemic to the private health insurance industry. But that ain’t gonna happen. I’m going to offer an amendment on the floor of the Senate to try to move that, but it’s not going to pass.

What we are also trying to do is to see if we can at least get a state single-payer option, allowing states, whether it’s my state of Vermont or California, if they so choose, to go forward with a single-payer program, because I believe if one state can show that single payer works, it will eventually spread all over the country. But we’re fighting for that, and I think we’ve got a shot at maybe getting that.

In terms of the public option, it is just very difficult for me to understand how you’re going to have, A, any kind of serious cost containment, if we’re not providing competition to the private insurance companies, whose function in life is obviously to make as much money as the possibly can. So you need to have that type of competition there. And second of all, I think you have many millions of Americans who are sick and tired of dealing with the greed and dishonesty of private insurance companies. They want a Medicare-type public option available to them. So we’re going to do everything that we can in the Senate to make sure that there is a strong public option. As I think you know, poll after poll indicates widespread support for giving the American people that choice. If they don’t want it, that’s fine. But people believe that they should at least have that choice. So that’s the fight we’re engaged in right now, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that that happens.


Well, also reports yesterday that the Congressional Budget Office has said that the plan being worked out in the Senate Finance Committee is not going to, over the long term, increase the national deficit, which is one of the main issues that President Obama raised as a requirement for him to pass a bill. Is your sense that this latest report is providing more fuel or support for the Baucus plan that’s coming out of the Finance Committee?


Well, the issue is not just how much you spend; it also translates into the affordability of the program for the middle class or working families. And, of course, the other issue is, how do you raise the money? My impression is that the Baucus plan is not quite as clear as it should be in terms of how it raises its money. I’m not a great fan of beginning to attack the good health insurance programs that many working people have fought for their entire lives and have secured by giving up wage increases or other types of benefits. I don’t think you want to be taxing, in one way or another, the benefits that the middle class or working families have received. So, the whole issue of how you are going to pay for the subsidies that is going to come out of this legislation still remains up in the air, and I’m not impressed by the progressive nature of what the Baucus bill does.


On another topic, I’d like to ask you about Afghanistan. Your sense now of where the administration is heading right now? President Obama has ruled out a reduction of troops and is only now considering whether to increase American troops in Afghanistan. I’d like to ask your reaction to the President’s statements so far.


Well, I’m glad that he has at least, in a sense, signaled a time out and wants to analyze where we’re going to go from here. As you know, General McChrystal, I think, has indicated he thinks that we need 40,000 more troops. I think that that is a very, very, very bad idea. Juan, I worry very much that we can get mired down in Afghanistan in the way we did in Vietnam, in the way we did in Iraq. This is our ninth year. Ninth year. This is twice as long as World War II. We are dealing with a government in Afghanistan which is widely regarded to be corrupt. Most of the people who control the economy there are corrupt. They’re producing a whole lot of poppy seeds, which go into heroin.

So, before you start sending tens of thousands more American troops in there without, A, determining what is our goal — you know, we went in there in the first place, I think legitimately enough, to try to capture Osama bin Laden, who initiated the attack on 9/11. But what is the goal right now? What is our purpose? What is our relationship to the Afghan government? Are we getting the kind of multinational support that they need? What is our exit strategy? I mean, we’re in there nine years. Are we going to be in there twenty years, thirty years? Is it really necessary for us, in the middle of the most serious economic decline since the Great Depression, to be spending billions and billions of dollars more in Afghanistan? So we need a real national discussion on Afghanistan, which, frankly, has not happened. And it’s got to happen in the Senate. So I’m certainly opposed to sending more troops in there, but we need to rethink our approach.


Do you support Senator Feingold’s call for a timetable for withdrawal? And how do you think that would help the situation in Afghanistan?


Well, I think — you know, I think Russ is coming from the right place, in the sense of saying, look, we’re in there nine years. That’s an extraordinarily long period of time. How many more years are we going to be there? Do the American people want a twenty-year commitment? So I think that we need — we do need a timetable, and I think Senator Feingold is coming from the right direction on that.


Well, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent senator from Vermont, the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history, I’d like to thank you for being with us.

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