What is Bernie Sanders talking about when he says he wants a “political revolution”?
The answer is a series of policies that would offer vast new government-funded benefits to individual Americans, including health insurance, paid maternity leave and free tuition at public colleges.
To make those things possible, Sanders — a Vermont senator, “democratic socialist” and Democratic presidential candidate — would impose a variety of new taxes on the wealthy, on corporations and on Wall Street trade.
He also would give the federal government a new level of control over the college experience, the price of prescription drugs and child care — by making these sectors of the economy far more dependent on federal money.
Even if Sanders does win the White House, almost all of his big ideas are likely to be dead on arrival in a Republican-controlled Congress.
His response is that, if his political revolution is for real, then it can change Congress, too.
Below, some of Sanders’s biggest ideas:
1) Government health insurance for all
Sanders wants to eliminate private health insurance and in effect make the federal government everyone’s insurance company. He has long called his single-payer idea “Medicare for All,” to capitalize on the popularity of the federally run Medicare insurance for seniors.
For months of this campaign, however, Sanders declined to spell out how it would work. He finally did, just hours before Sunday’s fourth Democratic debate.
He said his plan would cover a wide variety of services, including in many cases more than private insurers cover now. And it would save them money at the same time: He says middle-class families would save $5,800 a year under his system.
“Bernie’s plan means no more co-pays, no more deductibles and no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges,” his campaign says.
The plan would cost $1.38 trillion per year, Sanders says. He would pay for it by raising taxes on the rich, including higher rates of tax on capital gains, dividends and large inheritances. He also would impose new income-based “premium” taxes on employers and individuals (although he says the new taxes would be smaller than the new savings).
But Sanders’s plan has not answered a key question: How would he make his system run so cheaply, while also promising to give Americans an end to fights over what their insurance covers? In theory, single-payer systems can use their monopoly power to say no: no to higher payments to hospitals, doctors and drug companies, and no to treatments and drugs that don’t seem worth the cost. That saves money, but it also angers customers and squeezes hospitals and doctors.
“Sanders has offered a puppies-and-rainbows approach to single-payer,” wrote Ezra Klein at Vox.com, punting the hardest questions to a later time.
2) Free tuition at public colleges
Sanders wants to eliminate tuition at all public colleges and universities. He would do that by having the federal government pay most of the tuition instead — with states also required to pay part of the tab.
His plan would not pay for tuition at private colleges. It also would not cover all non-tuition expenses at public colleges, such as books and room and board. But it would help students pay those costs with expanded work-study programs, federal grants and lower rates on student loans.
His plan would make the federal government the nation’s main customer for higher education, and give the government increased power to dictate what colleges spend money on. For instance, Sanders thinks that student centers and sports stadiums are not a good use of money, and has written legislation that would prohibit colleges from using federal tuition payments to build them.
The cost of this plan, which Sanders estimates at $75 billion per year, would be funded by a new tax that takes a tiny slice of all Wall Street trades. Sanders thinks this tax would be a good thing in itself, by reducing what he calls “speculation” and high-volume “flash” trading on Wall Street.
3) Break up the biggest banks
Sanders wants to reinstate a version of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that separated commercial banking and investment banking — intended to keep bankers from losing their depositors’ money in risky Wall Street bets.
He also wants to go further, and “break up” the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street. Sanders’s idea is for the Treasury secretary to compile a list of institutions whose size makes them “too big to fail.” They would then be cut off from emergency lending from the federal government, and federal regulators would be charged with breaking them up.
The new broken-up companies would be small enough “so that their failure would no longer cause a catastrophic effect on the United States or global economy without a taxpayer bailout,” according to the text of a bill Sanders wrote in 2015. He believes that, as president, he would not need Congress to act to use this power.
4) New taxes on the rich and corporations, which pay for new jobs and new aid
Sanders wants to use the government to reduce the gap between the nation’s richest and poorest — by using taxes on the former to pay for new aid and jobs programs for the latter.
In particular, he wants a five-year $1 trillion program to rebuild infrastructure such as roads, bridges and airports. Sanders thinks this would employ 13 million people. He also wants to spend $5.5 billion a year on a program to employ young people.
The infrastructure plan would be funded, Sanders says, partly by taxing money that U.S. companies now keep in international tax havens. The youth jobs program would be paid for by raising taxes on “carried interest” income for individuals, a type of income common among investors that is taxed at a lower rate than wages.
Sanders also wants to increase the Social Security benefits paid to seniors, by an average of $65 per month. He would do this by raising the “cap” on Social Security taxes, which means that now high earners pay Social Security taxes only on their first $118,500 of income.
Sanders also wants to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour over several years.
5) Guaranteed parental leave
Sanders wants to guarantee paid family or medical leave for all Americans. It would be funded by new taxes on income, paid by employers as well as employees. Sanders has signed on to a plan from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would have the Social Security Administration run the system. One major purpose of this legislation is to make sure new parents can take 12 weeks of leave without giving up a paycheck.
Sanders says he wants to make universal child care and pre-kindergarten available to all Americans, “regardless of income.” He has not released more details of his plan.
On the issue of abortion, Sanders says he wants to increase funding for Planned Parenthood. He also says he will nominate only Supreme Court justices who will preserve the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal.
6) A “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants
Sanders would expand President Obama’s executive actions so that all undocumented immigrants who’ve been in the country for more than five years could be protected from deportation. In all, Sanders says, almost 9 million immigrants would be eligible to apply for protection.
In addition, Sanders wants to create a “roadmap” to give all 11 million undocumented immigrants an opportunity to become legal permanent residents, then citizens. He is not specific about the kind of background check he would require as part of this process. But he says that “nonviolent individuals with prior contacts with our criminal justice system” should still be able to apply.
7) A carbon tax to fight climate change
Sanders would try to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by imposing a “carbon tax” that would make companies pay as they pollute. Sanders says this idea — discussed for years, but often dismissed as politically impossible — could raise billions, and push the economy toward cleaner sources of energy. It also could raise prices on a variety of goods, as polluters pass the tax on to customers. Sanders would give some of the tax money to low-income families in rebates to soften the blow.