There was much that was familiar about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ town hall event on the Bankers Trust Stage at NewBo City Market Sunday. The recorded soundtrack that played as people began to fill the open space in front of the stage was the same one used at Sanders’ rallies and town halls during the 2020 caucus season. There was, as usual, also a live performer (Casey Joe Collins this time).
The two most visible local elected officials present — Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, who introduced Sanders at the town hall, and Johnson County Supervisor Jon Green, wearing the only cowboy hat in the crowd — both of whom worked on Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
Much of Sanders’ speech on Sunday, with its focus on improving conditions for working Americans and the inclusion of eye-popping examples of growing inequality (“The top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 92 percent.”) would have fit in any of the campaign speeches he’s made in Iowa, and was delivered with his distinctive speaking cadence and hand gestures.
Even though this event was sponsored by his campaign organization, Friends of Bernie Sanders, the senator emphasized it was not a campaign event.
“This is not a political rally,” Sanders said. “This is an effort to discuss major legislation. And my feeling is that all over this country people are hungry — they’re hungry to learn about what the hell is going on in Washington.”
The major pieces of legislation the Vermont senator came to Cedar Rapids to discuss were the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Biden signed into law in March, the infrastructure bill the Senate passed earlier this month and the reconciliation bill still under consideration in Congress. (Reconciliation is a special process that allows a bill to pass the Senate without being subject to a filibuster. That means it only needs 51 votes to pass. Only measures changing spending or revenue can be included in a reconciliation bill, according to Congressional rules.)
Sanders began by reviewing the immediate challenges facing the country, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
“These are tough times for the country, but this is the moment that tests our mettle,” he told the hundreds of people gathered at NewBo. “Do we stand and fight? We will. And we’re going to prevail.”
Sanders then turned to the impact of the American Rescue Plan Act, which passed with only Democratic votes.
“Our country is now on the way for a major and rapid recovery from the economic collapse we experienced during the pandemic,” Sanders said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but let’s remember where we were and the progress that we’ve made.”
He pointed to the impact of the $300 per child monthly tax credit payments that have been distributed to families as one of the most important examples of that progress.
“As a result of the $300 per month payments that working parents are now receiving for their young children, we have reduced childhood poverty by 50 percent,” Sanders said, to an enthusiastic wave of applause. “That is an extraordinary accomplishment.”
But it is an accomplishment at risk.
The payments will only run through December under current law. The reconciliation bill being drafted in Congress would extend those payments.
That is the sort of provision that couldn’t be included in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate on Aug. 10, because only so-called “hard infrastructure” could attract bipartisan support.
That bill “will invest some $550 billion in new money in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our water systems, our wastewater plants, it will expand broadband and put money into public transit,” Sanders said.
It passed the Senate with the support of all 50 members of the Democratic caucus (Sanders and Sen. Angus King of Maine are both independents, but caucus with the Democrats). The bill was also supported by 19 Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley. (Sen. Joni Ernst voted against it.)
The reconciliation bill, which aims at making changes to a much broader set of issues than the infrastructure bill, “will in all likelihood, not get one Republican vote,” Sanders conceded.
“My Republican colleagues are saying, ‘well, we can’t support this bill because it’s going to raise taxes,’” Sanders said. “Well, they’re right.”
Sanders said the reconciliation bill will raise taxes on “the billionaire class” and make “corporations start paying their fair share” in taxes to fund its programs. The current estimate of the bill’s spending is $3.5 trillion.
And according to Sanders, those programs will make the reconciliation bill the “most consequential piece of legislation for working families that we have seen in the country since the New Deal of the 1930s.”
The senator listed what he considered some of the most important provisions that have been proposed for the bill.
• Extend the $300 direct child tax payments
• Provide support for child care, with the aim of making sure no family pays more than 7 percent of their annual income for child care. Also expand the availability of childcare by increasing the wages of care workers, and pay for the construction of more facilities.
• Create free, universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-old children.
• Two years of free tuition at community colleges.
• Support the creation of affordable housing. (“This legislation will pump more money into the construction of low income and affordable housing than any build in the history of this country,” Sanders said.)
• Direct funding to support people in need of medical assistance to be able to continue living in their homes, and make sure home healthcare aides are paid decent wages.
• Expand Medicare to cover dental procedures, eyeglasses and hearing aids.
• Guarantee up to three weeks of paid family and sick leave for all workers.
• “[M]ake massive investments in having the United States lead the world in combating climate change and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.”
The bill is still being drafted, and Sanders warned the crowd that it is already facing stiff opposition.
“Right now, you have every powerful special interest and their lobbyists flooding Capitol Hill, trying to defeat this legislation,” he said.
But Sanders said he was confident the bill could be passed through the reconciliation process, and the crowd at NewBo was certainly supportive of it. That wasn’t surprising, given that Linn was one of six counties Joe Biden carried in the 2020 election.
Sanders’ town hall in Cedar Rapids was part of a three-stop swing through the Midwest. On Friday, he held a town hall in West Lafayette, Indiana, and on Saturday, he held one in Detroit, Michigan. Both of those stops were in friendly areas, as well. Biden won Michigan, largely due to the support he received in Detroit, and West Lafayette — home to Purdue University — is located in one of the five counties Biden won in Indiana.
Following his prepared remarks, Sanders had four Iowa residents discuss the impact government programs have had on their lives. Then he took a few questions from the crowd.
The senator concluded the event on a serious, but hopeful, note.
“These are tough times,” Sanders said. “It’s a time not for demagoguery. It is a time to understand the severity of the economic crises, social crises and climate crises that we face. To look at them boldly, not to hide them, not to demagogue the issue.”
“And if we do that, I am absolutely confident that if we come together as a nation, we will not only solve these issue, we will move this country forward in a better direction.”
Watch Sanders’ speech at NewBo City Market: