Senator Bernie Sanders is the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee. What does that mean for US economic policy?

Senator Bernie Sanders is the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee. What does that mean for US economic policy?
Source: Caroline Brehman, Reuters
The new president will be relying on Sanders to shepherd the new administration’s economic policies.

The victories of two Democrats in the Georgia Senate runoff election will have an immediate effect in Congress. As the ranking (or most senior) member of the United States Senate Committee on the Budget, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has become the new chair of the committee responsible for crafting the nation’s budget.

It is a reality Republicans have been dreading since at least 2016. Sanders, the most left-leaning member of the Senate, has long advocated for progressive economic policies that include raising the minimum wage, erasing student loan debt and increasing taxes on wealthy Americans. Sanders also supports Medicare for All (M4A), a single-payer health care program that would cover all US citizens.

Sanders, who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in both 2016 and 2020, has differed with the more moderate Joe Biden over economic worldviews. Now, though, the new president will be relying on Sanders to shepherd the new administration’s economic policies. In the process, Sanders will be faced with a somewhat defanged Republican opposition.

Chairman Bernie Sanders

When incoming Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their respective races in the Georgia runoff elections, it changed the dynamic of the Senate. Both Republicans and Democrats hold 50 seats, but Vice President Kamala Harris is the president of the Senate, which means she holds a crucial tiebreaking vote.

Consequently, Democrats now control the Senate and take the lead on all Senate committees. Bills and nominations are considered in committees before they reach the Senate floor. Committees can keep those bills or nominee votes from reaching the full Senate, though a proposed “power-sharing” agreement would allow ties in the committees to be advanced.

Senator Sanders is a member of five Senate committees: Budget, Energy & Natural Resources, Environment & Public Works, Veterans Affairs, and Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP). With the Senate switching to Democrat control, Sanders will be replacing the former chair of the Budget Committee, Republican Senator Mike Enzi.

On January 16, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted about this new “harsh reality” for Republicans: “socialist Bernie Sanders will become the chairman of the Sen Budget Committee. He has vowed to use his position to enact his progressive agenda on health care, climate, infrastructure spending, & cutting defense spending.”

Sanders, who identifies as a Democratic Socialist (which is distinct from socialism), is not bothered by Republican concerns about him. In fact, he has celebrated it, acknowledging that what Republicans say about him is true: he wishes to push a progressive economic policy.

Of his Republican colleagues, Sanders said, “They should be worried.”

What can Bernie Sanders do as the Budget Committee chairman?

As reported by The New York Times, Sanders says he is looking to pursue an “aggressive” agenda (“Underline the word aggressive,” he told the paper).

In part, this is because he believes the current COVID-19 pandemic must be met with a more substantive stimulus than the one that was passed in December under the Trump administration. Sanders specifically called for an additional US$1,400 in stimulus payments to US citizens, in addition to the US$600 payments recently passed by the previous Senate.

Much of what Sanders says he wants was in the US$1.9 trillion stimulus package that Biden proposed in mid-January. Biden’s proposed stimulus includes more money for vaccinations and testing, an eviction moratorium for homeowners and rental assistance for renters, and more money to help children and people on food stamps.

Biden’s proposal also includes raising the federal minimum wage to US$15 an hour, one of his key campaign promises.

In addition to those proposals, Sanders wants to create an emergency pandemic health care program that would allow anyone to get medical treatment with or without insurance. Biden’s proposal doesn’t go that far, instead offering subsidies for health insurance. Sanders’ “universal” plan would be far more extensive than Biden’s, as millions of Americans do not have health insurance.

Republican resistance to Biden and Sanders’ stimulus plans will likely be intense. Democrats had to negotiate with Republicans just to get the US$900 billion stimulus package that was passed in December. Republicans are expected to emphasize the effect a larger stimulus package will have on the US debt and deficit in their resistance.

Republican objections might not matter, though, because of the reconciliation process, a legislative process created in 1974. The point of reconciliation is to speed up consideration of matters related to taxes, spending and the national debt. It allows any bills related to the budget to bypass filibuster attempts, thus making it harder for the opposition party to stop or delay the budget.

This process was used to fast track the divisive 2017 Trump tax bill that lowered taxes for much of the country but mostly benefited wealthier Americans.

How would Sanders use the budget reconciliation process? As head of the Budget Committee, Sanders and his Democratic colleagues could advance a “reconciliation bill,” which would include their budget priorities, to the Senate floor. Reconciliation bills only require a simple majority to pass, so if all Democrats supported it, the bill would pass.

A similar process can occur in the House of Representatives, which is also controlled by the Democrats.

Beyond the pandemic, Sanders can’t use the reconciliation process to create a Medicare for All program or to carry out his other more ambitious policy plans. As chair of the Budget Committee, though, he will be able to ensure his policy priorities are at least given consideration.

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