BRATTLEBORO—Sometimes, the choir needs to get preached to.
In the bluest town in the bluest county of Vermont, approximately 500 people crowded onto the Brattleboro Common for an outdoor noontime “town meeting” on Labor Day with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
The stop on Sept. 6 was part of a series of five such meetings held around Vermont during the Labor Day weekend, with stops in Springfield, Newport, St. Johnsbury, and Middlebury to talk about a $3.5 trillion budget resolution now before Congress.
According to Sanders’ staff, more than 2,000 people in all attended the five meetings.
Sanders called the budget blueprint “the most consequential piece of legislation for working class people since the 1930s.”
He said that this bill would go a long way toward improving life for working families, addressing the threat of climate change, and creating millions of well-paying jobs.
A big lift for working America
Monday’s gathering had a touch of Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. But this wasn’t a campaign rally for a man as much as it was a rally for an idea.
Similar to a round of appearances he made late last month in the Midwest, the event let Sanders talk about legislation that could bring to fruition many of the policy priorities that he has talked about for decades.
The ambitious budget package — Sanders called it “the first piece of legislation I have seen that takes a hard look at the crisis we are facing” — seeks to fund such programs as free community college education, reductions in costs of health insurance and prescription drugs, expanding child care credits and paid family leave for working-class families, building more affordable housing units, and rebuilding public infrastructure.
Sanders has a pivotal role in moving the spending plan through the Senate. As head of the Senate Budget Committee, he will oversee the drafting of the plan while threading the needle of the somewhat-arcane process known as budget reconciliation, necessary to protect the bill from a Republican filibuster.
Under traditional Senate rules, bills affecting spending require a simple majority, while other legislation requires approval of 60 Senators to proceed. As a result, Democrats and independents (Sanders and U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine) hold 50 seats in the Senate and have a potential tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, but Republicans can easily use the filibuster to block non-budget-related legislation.
Sanders made it clear it would not be an easy fight.
“We have got our work cut out for us,” Sanders said. “As we work on this legislation, the insurance companies and the drug companies and billionaire class are doing everything they can to defeat what we are doing or to make it less significant.”
Sanders said the COVID-19 relief funds disbursed by the federal government last year through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) helped tens of millions of Americans weather the “worst crisis we have seen in our lifetimes.”
He called ARPA “an emergency response to an emergency situation. Responding to an emergency is the right thing to do. But now is the time to take a hard look at the structural crises facing our country that have gone on decade after decade.”
Those crises include inadequate health care access for millions of Americans, some of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world, and some of the least family-friendly work policies of any nation in the world.
Sanders urged people not to feel overwhelmed or be filled with despair over the many crises facing the nation — climate change, a deadly pandemic, and the steady erosion of democracy.
By standing together and fighting “the demagogues who are dividing us by color, where you were born, or sexual orientation,” the nation can address those crises and also “move this country in a much more vibrant, democratic way, in which all of our people have standards of living and can enjoy long and prosperous lives.”
Sharing the mic
Two Democratic members of Brattleboro’s legislative contingent in Montpelier — Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint and state Rep. Emilie Kornheiser — also shared the stage with Sanders and built upon his words and ideas.
Balint spoke of the need to fight what she called the “big lie” — that the country faces an employment crisis “because American workers are lazy. But we know that’s not true.”
She cited data that show states which abruptly ended increased pandemic unemployment benefits did not see a big increase of workers returning to their former jobs.
“Why is that?” asked Balint. “We have a child care crisis. We have a housing crisis. People are worried about getting sick, bringing a sickness home. It makes sense a lot of people are hesitant to return to the workforce.”
Also, Balint said, millions of Americans retired during the pandemic because “they looked around and said, ‘I’m not going to be here much longer. I want to make this life count, make my work count,’” using the term coined by journalist Heather Long, who wrote the nation is going through “a great reassessment” of what work means.
“Is it any surprise that when workers are going through a deep emotional and psychological crisis they might want to take advantage of changing what they are doing for work?” she asked.
Kornheiser said while ARPA brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Vermont to help ease the stresses of the pandemic, it was the community that came together and showed what can be accomplished in a crisis.
“We showed up to make sure everyone felt welcome,” she said.
But Kornheiser said it was hard for many people to help because they’re stretched so thin, and that affordable health care and paid medical and family leave, with a progressive tax policy to fully fund them, would take pressure off working people.
During a half-hour question period at the end of the meeting, Sanders said if people wanted to see change, they need to elect more progressives to public office, support the nonprofits that are fighting for progressive reforms, and to reach out to the recalcitrant members of Congress who are still on the fence regarding the budget plan.