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Bernie Sanders’s 2020 policy agenda: Medicare for All; action on climate change; $15-an-hour minimum wage

A policy guide to the senator from Vermont running for the White House.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced Tuesday that he will run for president and again seek the Democratic Party's nomination. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will run for president proposing to enact a “Medicare-for-all” health-care system, stave off catastrophic climate change through a “Green New Deal” and other climate measures, and implement a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all American workers, according to aides to the senator.

Sanders will also tout proposals to mandate breaking up the biggest Wall Street banks; free tuition at public colleges; lower drug prices through aggressive government intervention; new labor laws to encourage union formation; curbed corporate spending on elections; paid family and medical leave; gender pay equity; and expanded Social Security benefits, aides said.

His criminal justice platform will include legalizing marijuana, ending cash bail throughout the United States, and abolishing private prisons, while he will also run on the standard Democratic policy goals of protecting young immigrants brought to the United States as children, and limiting the sale and distribution of guns.

Sanders’s policies would require trillions of dollars in additional government spending. The senator has previously called for significant cuts to U.S. military spending and a number of plans to ramp up taxes, including through heavy taxation of wealthy estates, corporations, the richest 1 percent of Americans and offshore tax havens. Some of his plans, such as Medicare-for-all, would also require higher taxes on the middle class, although supporters say they would on net help everyday Americans by eliminating their private health-care costs.

These policies are unlikely to be enacted in the form proposed by Sanders even if he becomes president, given opposition from centrist Democrats and the difficulty of moving legislation through the Senate.

The senator from Vermont, who announced his bid for the Democratic presidential primary in an email to supporters on Tuesday, lost to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary but is frequently ranked near the top of a wide-open early primary field. Republicans and centrist Democrats have said that Sanders promotes socialism — Sanders identifies as a democratic socialist — and that his policies would bankrupt the United States at a time of already mounting fiscal deficits.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) discussed his plans for his 2020 presidential run in an interview that aired on "CBS This Morning" on Feb. 19. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

“Every 50 years, there is someone who can fundamentally alter the course of American politics. Bernie Sanders has the chance to reorient our economic policy toward workers and communities left behind instead of corporate interests,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has encouraged Sanders to run.

Others say a Sanders nomination is more likely to get Trump reelected, with think tanks such as Third Way arguing that “ultraprogressive” candidates did less well in the 2018 midterm election.

Here are some of the policies Sanders hopes will power him to the White House.

Medicare-for-all. Sanders plans to campaign on a promise to move the nation to a single-payer “Medicare-for-all” system, in which every American would be enrolled in a government plan. In the fall of 2017, 16 Senate Democrats co-sponsored Sanders’s bill, which previously garnered zero Senate co-sponsors and was criticized by Clinton’s campaign in 2016 as wildly unrealistic.

Medicare-for-all would give health insurance to the approximately 30 million Americans who lack it, while also eliminating all premiums, co-pays and deductibles. U.S. health-care spending per capita is more than two times as large as the average for developed nations, even as Americans have below-average life expectancy at birth and lag on a number of other key health outcomes. Single-payer advocates say one government insurer would have the bargaining power to drive down costs, while giving free health care to those who lack coverage.

Critics say the plan would require prohibitive, impossibly large new taxes, and question the political wisdom of forcing nearly half the country to switch from the current private plan to a public insurer. Even Democrats who have signed onto Sanders’s bill have balked at its core feature of eliminating private insurance, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said he does not favor doing so.

Sanders has argued that virtually eradicating private health insurance — excepting things such as “cosmetic surgery, you want to get your nose fixed,” Sanders has said — is essential to preventing the costs of a Medicare-for-all system from becoming prohibitive.

Conservatives have also warned that a single-payer system could impede quality of care for those who have it, pointing to long wait times in the Canadian system.

Major climate action, including the “Green New Deal.” Sanders has repeatedly called climate change “the single greatest threat facing our planet,” and in 2016 campaigned on cutting carbon pollution by 40 percent by 2013, in part through an aggressive carbon tax on pollution.

Sanders will in the next few months also introduce a proposal to fight climate change through a “Green New Deal,” which will similarly aim to slash emissions with an enormous public works program that would create tens of millions of jobs. The effort is moving on a parallel track to that announced earlier this month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and a number of 2020 presidential candidates in the Senate, including Sanders, Booker, and Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

The upcoming Sanders plan is expected to contain significantly more details about how a Green New Deal would move the nation’s economy to one that zeros out carbon emissions, according to aides to the senator, while the Ocasio-Cortez resolution supported by the other 2020 candidates mostly laid out ambitious targets for carbon reduction.

The White House said in a recent statement that the Green New Deal would be a “central planning disaster” and a “road map to destroy the American economy,” and President Trump called it “a high school term paper that got a low mark.” The Trump administration has not announced a plan to address climate change, and Trump has repeatedly dismissed the scientific consensus behind it. But the plan also has faced some criticism from proponents of action to address global warming, including some who have called for a greater focus on exporting renewable energy technology to developing countries and others who have argued that the problem can be addressed more cost-effectively through market-based mechanisms.

In the fall, the top scientific body studying climate change found that the world had to take “unprecedented” steps to reduce carbon levels, with the planet on pace to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels. Scientists called the report a “deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen.”

$15-an-hour minimum wage. As he did in 2016, Sanders will campaign on a national $15-an-hour minimum wage for all U.S. workers.

The nation’s existing $7.25-an-hour minimum wage has not been raised since 2009, although a number of states have passed their own increases. That includes typically conservative places such as Arkansas and Missouri, suggesting their potential popularity with parts of Trump’s base.

Critics of higher minimum wages say they drive up business costs and reduce employment, and can also cut hours for workers, according to one study on Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage. Other research has contradicted those results, with left-leaning economists questioning results showing negative effects from Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage.

In 2016, Clinton pushed a $12-an-hour minimum wage at the federal level. The number of Democrats in Congress supporting Sanders’s legislation to achieve a $15-an-hour minimum wage has risen from about 60 in 2015 to more than 200 in 2018, according to Sanders’s aides. Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, has called the federal minimum wage a “terrible idea.”

Tuition-free colleges and universities, and reducing student loan debt. Sanders has also pushed legislation to abolish tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities and intends to run on the plan in 2020, according to aides.

The amount of total student debt has ballooned from $480 billion in 2006 to $1.5 trillion in 2018, affecting home-ownership rates and causing young people to delay starting families. A 2017 report found that the price of college has increased more than 100 percent since 2001.

Sanders has also proposed cutting all student loan interest rates in half, and allowing Americans to refinance student loans at low interest rates. Researchers with the Levy Economics Institute have proposed retiring the $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, a measure Sanders does not embrace.

The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said in 2016 that Sanders’s plan for free college would cost about $800 billion over 10 years. Sanders has proposed paying for it with a transaction tax on large Wall Street firms, which would raise $600 billion over a decade, CRFB found.

Some more centrist Democrats have stopped short of calling for that significant overhaul of the nation’s higher education system. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a presidential candidate, said at a CNN town hall event on Monday night that she would focus first on two-year colleges: “No, I am not for free four-year college for all, no.”

Break up biggest Wall Street banks. In October 2018, Sanders released an update to his 2016 campaign proposal to break up the largest Wall Street banks, announcing a plan that would bar them from holding assets worth more than $584 billion. At least six banks — including JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup — would be broken up by federal regulators under the proposal, which aides say is expected to play a prominent role in Sanders’s campaign.

Sanders touts the plan as a way to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis of a decade ago. But it has been criticized by some analysts and allies of the financial industry, who pointed to significant improvements in the capital cushions that banks now hold to ward against collapse. Dodd-Frank, an Obama-era banking law, put new capital requirements into effect for the largest financial institutions.

Criminal justice overhaul. Sanders will also be pushing measures intended to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, including to legalize marijuana, end private prisons and significantly reduce cash bail.

In summer 2018, Sanders introduced legislation to end bail in federal proceedings, while giving grants to states in an attempt to get them to reduce the number of prisoners they hold on bail. In 2016, he also called for “automatic” federal investigations of deaths in police custody.

Cash bail disproportionately jails poor Americans, in particular black Americans, who cannot afford to make court-ordered payments.

Paid family leave, and gender pay equity. Right now, the United States is alone in the developed world in not requiring businesses to give new mothers paid leave, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Although mothers are not guaranteed time off by the government, families that do get time off from their employers tend to be more affluent, said Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

In 2013, Gillibrand released a bill to create the nation’s first universal paid family leave program. It would pay workers while they take time off if they have to take care of a sick child, parent or spouse; give birth to a child; or get sick themselves. Sanders is a co-sponsor of the bill, and he talked about the need for paid family leave in his 2016 presidential campaign.

Sanders has also co-sponsored legislation, titled the Paycheck Fairness Act, that would bar employers from retaliating against workers who ask about their wages, as well as making employers liable to civil litigation.