Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 - Motion to Proceed

Floor Speech


Mr. SANDERS. This afternoon I wish to touch on two issues. One is the issue of Social Security, which is life-and-death for many millions of Americans, and the other is the issue of Medicare and Medicaid.

The main point I would like to make--and I make this as a member of the budget conference committee--is that the American people, regardless of their political persuasion--Democratic, Republican, Independent, conservative, progressive, whatever--are quite united in stating they do not want cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and they do not believe we should balance the budget on the backs of some of the most vulnerable people in this country.

According to the latest National Journal/United Technologies poll, 81 percent of the American people do not want to cut Medicare benefits at all, 76 percent of the American people do not want to cut Social Security benefits at all, and 60 percent of the American people do not want to cut Medicaid benefits at all. This is only one of many polls that are out.

What the American people understand is that millions of people are hurting in today's economy. The number of people living in poverty is at an alltime high, and median family income is going down. Unemployment is much too high. People are hurting, and we cannot make devastating cuts to the social safety net that is literally life-and-death for so many of our people.

I did want to mention that I worked on a petition drive with a number of grassroots organizations throughout this country. They include CREDO, Daily Kos, Campaign for America's Future, Social Security Works, Democracy for America, Progressives United, MoveOn, Other98, USAction, and the Alliance for Retired Americans. In a pretty short time--less than 1 week--we received over 500,000 names on a petition that says very clearly: Do not cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Do not balance the budget on the backs of some of the most vulnerable people in this country.

The other point I would make when we talk about the budget is that at the end of the day people do believe the deficit is too high. We should be proud, by the way, that in the last 4 years we have cut the deficit in half, but it is too high. But what the American people also say is that what is much more significant to them is the economy and the fact that we have so many people who are unemployed.

I would point out, as somebody who believes very strongly--and I speak as a former mayor of Burlington, VT--who believes absolutely that when your infrastructure--your roads, bridges, and rail system--is in need of enormous investment, where we can create millions of decent-paying jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, what the American people are saying is, yes, we have to create jobs. According to a March 3, 2013, Gallup poll, 75 percent of the American people--including 56 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of Independents, and 93 percent of Democrats--support ``a federal jobs creation law'' that would spend government money for a program ``designed to create more than 1 million new jobs.''

Again, of course, people say we are divided in America. In many ways we are not quite so divided. The American people say don't cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The American people say the most important issue facing our country is creating jobs. They want the Federal Government to do that. In this body we are divided, but among the American people, on these issues, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents are not quite so divided.

When we talk about unemployment, an issue that does not get anywhere near the kind of discussion we need is youth unemployment in America. As horrendous as unemployment is for anybody of any age, it is terrible for the young people who are graduating high school and graduating college. All of us say to the young people in this country: Don't stand on street corners. Don't do drugs. Go out and get a job, create a career, and make it into the middle class.

Yet real unemployment for young people in this country, for youth in this country, is somewhere around 20 percent. Among African-American young people it is over 40 percent. I don't hear the discussion in the Senate about the need to create the millions of jobs our young people desperately need so when they leave school they can go out and create a career for themselves and make it into the middle class. I worry very much about those young people who don't have that opportunity.

In an interview published October 1, 2013, Pope Francis said:

The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.

He is not, of course, only talking about America; he is talking about what is going on throughout the world.


The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don't even look for them anymore.

I couldn't agree more.

We cannot turn our backs on the elderly. We cannot cut Social Security and Medicare. We cannot turn our backs on the young people. They need to be given the opportunity to have decent jobs and make a life for themselves.


I would also like to say a few words about a piece of legislation that just passed the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. I am the chairperson of the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. I thank Chairman Harkin and Ranking Member Alexander, who are cosponsors of the Older Americans Act legislation that only last week came out of committee. This is a bill some of us have been working on for several years.

The Older Americans Act is an enormously important piece of legislation for senior citizens all over this country. The bill that came out of committee in a very strong bipartisan way has the strong support of over 50 national organizations representing tens of millions of Americans, including AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the National Council on Aging, the Alzheimer's Association, and the Meals On Wheels Association of America.

I won't go into all of what this bill does, as I don't have the time do that, but it deals with the very important issue of elder abuse and making sure that seniors in nursing homes get the care and respect to which they are entitled. It deals with the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. It places an increased emphasis on evidence-based programs. It addresses the changing nature of senior centers in America, prevents fraud and abuse, and it focuses on home care and nutrition services. There is a lot in this bill that I believe is quite good, and it is a step forward.

One of the problems we have--Senator Burr of North Carolina raised it, and appropriately so--the issue is that we are seeing in this country in general a migration of folks from northern parts of the country to the South--this is not a new issue--including many seniors. What Senator Burr was arguing is that he thinks the current formula is unfair and that it does not take into account that kind of migration. I think he has a valid point, which we want to address.

The other point and the most important point is that since 2006--the last year in which the Older Americans Act was authorized--the U.S. elder population has grown by over 20 percent. As the baby boomers age, every single State in this country has seen its senior population grow. The important point is that Federal funding for this legislation is the same today as it was in 2006--$1.8 billion. Funding for the act in terms of real inflation-accounted-for dollars has decreased by more than $250 million during that period of time.

We have a growth in the senior population and a decline in real dollars going into the needs of seniors through the Older Americans Act, and this is a very serious problem. We compound that problem with the migration from the North in some States to the South.

What is the solution? I believe the solution is very simple. If we understand that the Older Americans Act is an enormously cost-effective act--one doesn't need to be a gerontologist or a physician who deals with senior citizens to understand that when a senior is malnourished and doesn't get the nutrition he or she needs, that senior is more likely to break a hip by falling, that senior is more likely to get sick, go to the emergency room, and go to the hospital at great cost. Everybody knows that. There is no debate about that. When seniors have the companionship and the nutrition they need, they are less likely to go to the emergency room, they are less likely to go to the hospital, and we can save money.

Study after study shows that investing in programs such as the Older Americans Act--that is, the Meals On Wheels program, the congregate meal program, employment opportunities for seniors, dealing with elder abuse--when we invest in those programs, we save money. We not only from a moral perspective make life better for seniors, we actually save Federal money by preventing other bad things from happening.

I hope our committee and Members of the Senate can work together to say that increasing funding for the Older Americans Act is not only the right thing to do for millions of Americans, it is also the cost-effective way to go. If we can increase funding, we can deal with some of the issues Senator Burr has raised.

What I will not support is making drastic cuts in certain States, such as Iowa, New York, or Massachusetts, in order to increase funding in other States. We have to protect every State in this country because there is no State in which programs like the Meals On Wheels program don't already have long waiting lines. What we need to do is invest in these programs. When we do, we will have done something that is very important for seniors all over this country.

I yield the floor.