WASHINGTON — After three decades in Congress wielding influence as a left-wing outsider with a grassroots following, Sen. Bernie Sanders has finally grasped institutional power on Capitol Hill — and he is moving quickly to use it.
As the new chairperson of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders has already played a key role in advancing President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, and he is now scheduling high-profile hearings on some of the nation’s most pressing challenges.
For the first, set for Thursday, Sanders has summoned the chief executives of some of America’s best-known companies to testify about the wages they pay their employees — speaking alongside some of their own front-line workers.
The hearing’s title — “Why Should Taxpayers Subsidize Poverty Wages at Large Profitable Corporations?” — reflects how Sanders intends to use his new gavel to promote an unabashedly liberal economic agenda, one that breaks with the Budget Committee’s traditional focus on the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook.
Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, said he sees his panel’s scope as touching on “every aspect of public policy — in fact, on every aspect of American life,” and he plans to focus on the plight of the working class amid growing inequality.
“They are living through an economic desperation the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression,” Sanders said in an interview. “So we are going to be a very active and aggressive Budget Committee, which is going to explore what’s going on with the working class and the middle class of this country and how we can successfully address the crises that they face.”
Other hearings are tentatively on the books: On March 17, Sanders is planning a hearing on income and wealth inequality, followed by a March 24 hearing on “making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes” and an April 14 hearing on the costs of climate change.
As chairperson of a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee, he also plans to hold a hearing later this year on prescription drug prices.
It remains unclear whether the McDonald’s and Walmart executives Sanders has invited to next week’s hearing will appear. McDonald’s declined to comment, and representatives for Walmart did not respond to inquiries Thursday.
One top executive who has agreed to testify, according to Sanders’s office, is Craig Jelinek of Costco, which is known for paying its workers higher-than-average wages and benefits. Costco also did not respond to a request for comment.
Sanders said no matter who shows up, he is determined to highlight the ever-growing gap between the pay of top executives and their essential employees — and the effect those wages have on federal expenditures.
“Do they really think that the taxpayers of this country have to subsidize their workers in terms of food stamps, in terms of Medicaid or public housing, because they’re paying starvation wages? We are going to raise those issues,” Sanders said. “So I would suggest that they come and they take the opportunity to … defend what they’re doing.”
The Budget Committee hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building has rarely been a place of great televised drama. The panel’s gavel for decades has been swapped between chairs who saw their main task as casting a watchful eye on widening deficits and a growing national debt. Republicans have tended to focus on curbing government spending, while Democrats have urged the need to maintain revenue.
While Sanders has declared some concern about a national debt that has soared past $20 trillion, his greater worry is about an American underclass that the federal government is failing to help.
His Republican sparring partner on the panel is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been more prominent in recent years for his up-and-down relationship with former president Donald Trump than for economic policy matters. But Graham has shown a long interest in tackling the nation’s long-term fiscal trajectory, and he recently indicated he is relishing the opportunity to engage in broader debates over thorny issues with Sanders.
“It gives us a chance, I think, to talk about big things, and there’s going to be differences,” Graham said at a hearing last week. “One of my goals is to make sure that all these big things that we’re talking about other people paying for, that we have a sense of, you know, how do you pay for all this stuff.”
Sanders from 2013 to 2015 chaired the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, a panel with limited jurisdiction. Now Sanders’s grasp of true agenda-setting power is being celebrated by fellow lawmakers on the hard left, who are encouraged to have an ally — not a deficit hawk — in a key position.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Thursday that she has been speaking to Sanders multiple times a week about pending legislation — including a minimum wage hike that Sanders is working to shoehorn into the pandemic relief bill.
“It’s just been great to have somebody chairing that committee who’s got power and who’s willing to call it like it is and say exactly why it’s so important that we deliver for people on these bold, populist, popular policies,” she said.
One task that remains in doubt is whether the Budget Committee under Sanders will write a traditional budget — one that sets out long-term revenue and spending targets for the federal government. “I just don’t know the answer to that at this point,” Sanders said.
That core task is up in the air in part because Biden and Democratic congressional leaders are relying on special rules under the Senate Budget Committee’s purview to skirt a GOP filibuster and pass major legislation over the next two years — starting with the pandemic bill, known as the American Rescue Act.
The Senate earlier this month passed a stripped-down budget resolution that paved the way for that process, known as reconciliation, to move forward. Now, Sanders’s staff and aides from other congressional committees are working to convince the Senate parliamentarian that the wide-ranging proposals Democrats are eyeing comport with strict budget rules.
The process is expected to repeat later this year when Democrats embark on an even larger package that is expected to include trillions in new infrastructure spending.
Sanders declined to discuss how big of an infrastructure bill he is eyeing or how quickly it might move. Both of those parameters are subject to negotiation with more moderate Democrats. But he said he expected the legislation to address “structural problems” facing the country, including addressing student debt, remaking the federal tax regime and “transforming our energy system.”
To lay the groundwork for that effort, Sanders said, he plans to continue holding hearings on big issues and perhaps — pandemic willing — taking his panel on the road.
“I think it would be really interesting to go to communities around the country and hear from working people about what is going on in their lives and how the national priorities that we have now impact them,” he said.