The Patriot Act's Watchdog
There's no stopping Bernie Sanders. The only Independent (I) member of the House of Representatives, he sponsored the amendment that declawed some of the most invasive provisions of the Patriot Act, namely the parts that allowed federal agents to snoop into library and bookstore records without a warrant. Sanders is the favorite bet to become the next Senator from Vermont, replacing the only Independent member of the Senate, Jim Jeffords. In fact, the last poll showed him with an average of a 40 point lead over two potential Republican opponents.
What does all this prove? That if you stand up for what you believe in and keep fighting for it, and don't back down, you earn the respect of your constituents. In the case of Sanders, Vermont has only one Congressional Representative, so his Congressional constituents will be the same people as his Senate constituents.
Americans like someone with backbone and a couple of fists ready to do battle -- and someone who isn't wishy-washy. Not to mention, Bernie's a pro-democracy, pro-working class kind of guy, without apologies. That's why they love Bernie in the Green Mountain State.
Buzzflash: On June 10, there was a meeting of the Judiciary Committee chaired by the Republican chairman from Wisconsin, James Sensenbrenner, at which Congressman Conyers invited witnesses to speak to how the Patriot Act is not going well, and is violating American civil liberties. Congressman Sensenbrenner summarily gaveled the meeting to a close because he didn't like the way it was going, meaning that people were objecting to the Patriot Act, and this was getting on television.
We [at Buzzflash] have very strong feelings about the so-called Patriot Act. We view this as a power play by the Bush Administration to gain powers that would be centralized in the Executive branch and not subject to any checks and balances. As you're aware, in the Senate they had a secret meeting recently about the Patriot Act in which they discussed giving the FBI subpoena powers without having to go through the courtroom. What is your whole take about where we're at with the Patriot Act?
Congressman Sanders: I voted against the Patriot Act. I've introduced, I think, the first legislation to start amending the Patriot Act, which is to take libraries and bookstores out of Section 215. By the way, that was brought to the floor of the House last summer, and at the end of the regulation time, we had won that vote. Tom DeLay kept the rolls open for another twenty minutes and twisted some Republican arms. And we ended up losing it by a 210-210 vote. [That amendment went before the House again on Tuesday and we won 238-187!]
The whole idea of the Patriot Act does concern me very, very much. We do have to be vigorous in protecting the American people from terrorism, but I do not believe that you have to undermine Constitutional rights in order to do so. The Bush Administration's position on civil liberties has been a disaster, not just with the USA Patriot Act, but also moving toward a national ID card, their desire to make sure that the PBS becomes a Republican outlet, the fact that they entertained an extreme right-wing blogger in the White House conference room to allow softball questions to be asked, the fact that it is extremely difficult for members of the opposition to get amendments heard on the floor of the House. There has been a huge abuse of power on the part of the Republican leadership. The Patriot Act is just another step that will chip away at Americans' Constitutional rights.
On the Senate side they are mulling over the FBI being given subpoena powers without having to get the approval of a judge.
I totally disagree with it. In the Congress a number of provisions are up for being sunsetted. The Senate has not sunset anything. In fact, they've expanded the rights of the government to get information from Americans without judicial review. Obviously, that is moving in exactly the wrong direction.
This is a real centralization of power in the Executive branch. The FBI, of course, works for the Executive branch. How much of a threat is that?
You have the most secretive Administration probably in the history of this country, an Administration which claims to be "conservative," but in fact is right-wing extremist. Honest conservatives believe in the decentralization of power. Power back to the states, back to local communities. This Administration, more than any that we can remember, wants power for itself, wants to do away, time after time, with judicial review, has an Attorney General who wrote a recommendation regarding and approving detainee torture, is sending prisoners to other countries to be tortured, has run a very bad process in Guantanamo, to say the least. Obviously, in terms of civil liberties, this is a very dangerous Administration, and we've got to fight back as vigorously as we can.
I'd like you to comment on Congressman Sensenbrenner's abruptly ending the committee meeting which, in our estimation, the Bush Administration didn't want the media to cover -- testimony about violations of civil rights under the so-called Patriot Act. In the case of your amendment having to do with not giving the FBI the right to go and look at records of library usage and other data, Tom DeLay and Hastert just arbitrarily broke the rules of Congress and extended the clock, and arm-twisted in order to defeat the bill.
That's correct. These guys really do not believe in rules. Generally speaking, most of us grew up believing that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. If you play a football game, there are four quarters to the game. And if you're behind at the end of the game, you lose. You don't simply say, hey, I'm losing. Let's play a fifth quarter until I win.
These guys play to win, and they will break rules, as they did with my amendment. Or more - even more significantly, it took them three additional hours to twist votes to win the vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill, a disastrous bill written by the pharmaceutical industry. These guys are now, for the first time, very overtly injecting their political views into public broadcasting, hiring Republican Ken Tomlinson to run public broadcasting, demanding conservative programming be on the air. So this is an Administration which is exercising its power in an unprecedented way, in my view, to push its ideology. It is breaking rules and does not have a lot of respect for the United States Constitution. It is, in my view, the most reactionary Administration in the modern history of America, if not in American history.
We saw you recently at the Media Reform Conference in St. Louis, and you've been a very eloquent and articulate spokesperson on the need for media reform. In a film which we've offered as a premium on BuzzFlash, and I think close to 5,000 people have bought - "Orwell Rolls in His Grave" - you discuss the issue that, in all your years in Congress, no newspaper reporter or television reporter - no journalist - has come to you and asked about the income disparity gap, and the growing income disparity gap, in the United States. Why isn't the media interested in that?
Well, I think two points. My office has been working very, very hard on this whole issue of media. (And by the way, I thought that Orwell film was an extraordinarily good film. I was really glad to have been part of it.) The key issue is that we're seeing fewer and fewer large media conglomerates owning and controlling what the American people see, hear, and read. The extraordinary danger of that is, number one, Bush obviously wants those numbers to decline even further. That's why he was pushing, with Michael Powell, the so-called deregulation. It would have ended up meaning, if they had won, that in communities around America, you could have one company - one company -- owning the local television stations, radio stations, newspaper, cable company, and essentially controlling the entire flow of information to a local community. That's what Bush wanted. So far, he has not gotten that.
But all of this is part of a situation in which fewer and fewer people define what news is and what the American people will see, hear, and read. So somebody decides, for example, that the Michael Jackson trial is terribly important, or the kidnapping of an attractive woman deserves to be on the front pages every single day. Meanwhile, huge issues that affect tens of millions of Americans get very, very little coverage. For example, the most significant domestic issue facing the American people is the collapse of the middle class - the fact that in the last thirty years, 90% - the bottom 90% of American workers - have seen a decline in their real wages, despite an explosion of worker productivity and technology. The gap between the rich and the poor is now wider today than it has been since the 1920s. The poverty rate has increased by four million in the last four years.
How often does the media talk about these issues which impact tens of millions of people? It's just not part of what they think is news. Anything that smacks of some personal attack, or that's sensational becomes prominent news. But the decline of the standard of living of tens of millions of Americans, the disintegration of our health care system, the fact that we're the only nation on earth without a national health care program - these are non-news issues. As I said before, in all of the years that I have been involved in government - as a mayor for eight years, and in Congress for fifteen years - nobody's ever come up to me to ask what I was trying to do to end the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, because reporters are not told that that is an important issue. There are a million issues that they will ask me about, but that happens to be not one of them.
Can we speculate that part of the reason that question is not asked is that these reporters work for broadcast vehicles or print publications that are part of larger media corporations that benefit from the disparity?
It's not that the average reporter in Vermont or in New Hampshire is told that you can't ask that question. People who work for other people learn to know what is expected, or what their bosses want to hear, what they think is news. If there's a fire, it is big, big news. If there is a crime, it is big, big news. If there's a demonstration of hundreds of workers protesting something, it is determined not to be big news.
Ultimately it does go back, of course, to the fact that the people who own media are by and large wealthy corporate interests, talking about our disastrous trade policy, the tax breaks that we give to the wealthiest people. Talk about economic class issues. I mean, that's what it's about - class issues. Do we think the ruling class wants to talk about class issues and point out that there has been class warfare going on in this country for the last several decades, for which the rich are becoming much richer while the middle class shrinks and poverty increases? That is not an issue that the wealthy and the people who own the media particularly want to talk about.
You've been going around your state, which has gone through some very interesting demographic changes over the past thirty years, with a lot of wealthy Northeasterners moving up there, either for retirement or summer homes. And Burlington, where you were the mayor, has grown enormously. You travel around the state. What are people saying to you in town hall meetings are their biggest concerns?
Well, let me just deal with the demographics of Vermont. It is absolutely true that people come to Vermont from New York or Western Massachusetts. But the simple reality - and sometimes the media does not understand this - most Vermonters are not spending their winters in chalets skiing. This is a state where a vast majority of the people are working very, very hard just in order to pay the bills. A majority of workers are earning wages that don't even allow them to either rent or purchase affordable housing. Especially in the rural areas, a lot of people are struggling very hard to keep their heads above water.
You know, in the winter time, it gets pretty cold. Transportation costs are high. Heating costs are high. Wages are pretty low. So this is a state which has a lot of economic problems. We held a number of town meetings around the state on the issue of poverty. What we heard from the people themselves - people who are in the midst of being poor - is that people are working really, really hard but they're having a very hard time finding affordable housing. When they're finding housing, they're spending a very significant part of their income for housing.
Health care for adults is a real serious problem in the state of Vermont. People don't have it. If they do have it, they're paying far more than they can afford. We're finding that single moms, and even mothers that are married and in the household that is working, almost all of them are finding it very, very hard to find affordable child care. We also found from some people who work that hunger exists in the state of Vermont - our food banks are now providing more food to people than used to be the case. And that is mostly working people. We're not talking about people unemployed. We're talking about working people who at the end of the week don't have enough money to buy the food that their families need. I was quite surprised - but we have had very, very large turnouts in these meetings. And bottom line is that working people are facing a whole lot of economic problems. These problems are not being discussed in Congress, and they're certainly not being discussed in the media.
Are you hearing that the money that's being spent on Iraq might be better spent in Vermont?
Yes. At these meetings, people are very concerned that the President of the United States has not yet given us an exit strategy. I think people now want this President to tell us when our troops are going to begin coming home. I don't believe troops can come home tomorrow. But I think they should be coming home sooner. I think it's incumbent on the President to start telling us what his exit strategy is.
Are the people of Vermont starting to understand that they may have been deceived about the war?
I don't think the people of Vermont were deceived about the war. The people of Vermont were against the war. We have two Senators and myself, and all three of us voted against giving the President authorization to go to war. I can't speak for the other two, but I certainly think that was the right vote. I've worked very hard trying to gain Congressional support in opposition to going to war. I suspect that there are places around America where people believed the President's justifications for going to war who now understand that the President was not telling them the truth. In Vermont, people opposed the war then and oppose the war now. While we support the troops and we want to make sure that they are well-equipped and well-protected, I think the people understand that this war was not a good idea and could have been prevented, and we want our troops to come home as soon as possible.
You represent a state that does have a large rural farming population. The conventional wisdom in the media is that farmers vote for Bush. How has Bush agricultural policy affected Vermont?
Congressman Sanders: Bush's agricultural policies are geared toward agribusiness, toward large agribusiness conglomerates who are very, very wealthy and very large. In Vermont, our farmers are overwhelmingly small farmers. Our delegation in Congress had some success in passing legislation which was not supported by the Bush Administration - to provide help when prices go low. So I think most farmers in this country - in the state of Vermont, at least - most small farmers understand that the President is not on their side.
You are running, as we mentioned earlier, to succeed Senator Jeffords in the Senate. He moved from Republican to Independent. You've been an Independent Congressman since you were elected and are running as an Independent for the Senate. Why is it important for you to be an Independent rather than a Democrat?
I'm very proud of being an independent and proud of being the first Independent elected to the House in forty years. And the reason is, I am an Independent. Obviously, I work very closely with progressive Democrats and we formed the House progressive caucus, which now has 55 members, when I was first elected. Those are my closest allies. The truth is that there are a number of Democrats who, in many ways, operate as Republicans.
On the other hand, sometimes on various issues we work very closely with some conservative Republicans. Yesterday I was on the floor of the House introducing a resolution on withdrawing from the WTO, for example. We have very strong, conservative Republicans on this. My strong belief is that the Republican Party is certainly -- a lot, lot more than the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party also -- is influenced by big money. And I prefer to remain an Independent, doing my best to speak up for middle class and working families against the multi-national corporations, the wealthy who exert enormous influence over the political process. That's how I've been elected over the last, 24 years, and that's how I'm going to run for the Senate - as an Independent, prepared to take on the special interests in Washington and fight for the rights of ordinary people.
Your neighboring state, New Hampshire, has the motto, "Live free or die." The Republican Party traditionally, looking back forty, fifty years ago, was known for trying to preserve states' rights and opposing the concentration of power in Washington. It seems the Bush Administration has kind of turned that on its head.
You're absolutely correct, and this is not widely talked about. I'm on the Financial Services committee, and we see this every day there. I am not a conservative, but conservatism is a respectable philosophy which has given power back to local communities. Conservatives don't like a big federal government. That happens not to be my point of view, but it is an intellectually honest point of view. That is not - underlined - not - what Bush is.
Bush is a right-wing extremist. Wherever they can, they will seize power for the Administration. We see it in terms of issues dealing with financial matters, and a dozen others - we talked about civil liberties before - where they are prepared to preempt states' rights. This medical marijuana thing just the other day is a perfect case in point. Some people think that medical marijuana is a good idea. Some people think it's not a good idea. If a state votes for that, why is Bush pushing the federal government to overturn that? But he does this in every instance. So the point must be made that Bush is many things, but a conservative he is not. He is rather a right-wing extremist who is pushing a hard right ideology, and in instance after instance, is trying to consolidate power in Washington.
Thank you very much for your time, Congressman, and best wishes in your Senate run.
Thank you very much.