U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was in town Monday morning to face business leaders at a Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce breakfast. Then he high-tailed it over to his Burlington office for a press conference on transportation funding and his campaign to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that ushered in the spending orgy consuming the GOP presidential race.
After that — and before hopping a noon plane back to Washington, D.C. — he carved out 20 minutes to sit down with Seven Days for a wide-ranging interview that touched on Vermont Yankee, Burlington's mayoral politics and whether Vermont needs a state-level "Buffett Rule."
Sanders also talked about super PACs — President Obama's decision to embrace them and the circumstances under which he might do the same — which was the subject of this week's Fair Game column, "A Bernie Sanders Super PAC?"
The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
SEVEN DAYS: You've proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. What is the actual pasth to passage for that proposal? How certain or uncertain is it?
BERNIE SANDERS: It's not certain. And it's certainly not going to take place given the current [Congress]. You’re going to need two-thirds House, two-thirds Senate, and then three-quarters of the states. So it’s not going to be easy. But it is enormously important. What we can do, though, a lot easier, is pass legislation that doesn’t go as far as a constitutional amendment does, but can significantly mitigate the damage. For example, there will be a bill coming up, I suspect, within the next month or two which says that if you are a corporation putting an ad on television, you have to do what candidates have to do and say, 'I approve. I'm the head of General Electric, I’m the head of Bank of America, and I approve this ugly, nasty 30-second ad attacking somebody.' Once you force them to have their face up there, then you have done away with their ability to hide who they are and I think that will significantly diminish the number of ads.
SD: President Obama caused a ruckus last week when he said he would embrace the super PAC for his reelection. Would you ever accept help from a super PAC for your own reelection?
BS: I certainly would prefer not to. But I will tell you this. There is no member of the United States Senate that I think Wall Street, the oil companies, the coal companies, the military-industrial complex would like to defeat more than me. And I think it’s not going to happen, so I think that's kind of a hypothetical question that I’m not going to have to deal with. But we can chat about it if, six months from now, many, many millions of dollars are coming in attacking me.
SD: If it was a last resort...?
BS: That’s something we would look at, but I hope it’s not going to have to ... It’s the same issue as dealing with Obama. Should you be principled and allow your opponent to spend huge sums of money and you say, 'Well, I'm a principled guy and we're going to get outspent 5-to-1, and I'm going to lose the election?' Well, it's just something we’ll have to look at if and when it arises.
SD: Your amendment would declare that corporations are not people and it would give Congress the ability to regulate spending in elections. Would it solve the problem of nonprofits and unions giving unlimited sums? That’s one thing that’s come up.
BS: That has come up and that’s a fair question. And we wrestled with this issue and I think the best that we can say is, I don’t want unions to be able to spend unlimited sums of money, I don’t want nonprofits and so on. But in our legislation, what is very, very important is saying not only corporations are not people, but that once again the Congress and state legislatures have the power to regulate campaign spending, which certainly would and should include spending from unions and nonprofits.
SD: Do you plan to endorse in the Burlington mayor’s race?
BS: I’m thinking about it. I haven’t made that decision yet, but I’m thinking about it.
SD: What would sway you one way or the other? Do you see a candidate that would carry on your legacy?
BS: If I do endorse, I’ll be more specific. It’s a little bit early. It’s not so early! If I make an endorsement it will be before the election, not after the election.
SD: Do you think the state should appeal the Vermont Yankee court ruling? You called the decision “ripe for appeal”?
BS: Yes I do. I think the decision by [Judge J. Garvan] Murtha was not a great decision. I think the law is fairly clear that states do have the right to control nuclear power if it’s not a safety issue, if it is an economic issue. I think the state of Vermont has the right to say it sees its future in energy efficiency and sustainable energy, not nuclear power. So I think the judge was wrong and I think that’s an issue that should be appealed.
SD: You're cosponsoring legislation to create a federal "Buffett Rule" that would impose a minimum 30 percent tax on incomes over $1 million. Last week in Montpelier, 11 lawmakers called for raising top marginal income tax rates in Vermont to restore funding for weatherization programs. Do you think we have a "tax fairness" issue in Vermont? Do we need a state-level Buffett Rule?
BS: The governor is certainly right that it has to be dealt with at a federal level for a start. Right now we’re in a situation where we have the most unequal distribution of wealth income of any major country on Earth and a significant growing gap between the rich and everybody else. At the same time, the effective tax rate for the top 1 percent is the lowest it has been in decades. So should we pass progressive tax reform in Washington, ask the wealthiest people to pay more in taxes? The answer is absolutely yes. The question is, do I think we should do it in the state? I haven’t seen all the details but in general I would be sympathetic to it. I think that when we are seeing lower-income people and working-class people suffering as a result of the recession, when we’re seeing people struggling to heat their homes, to provide child care for their kids, to take care of the most minimal needs in life, do I think we should move toward more progressivity in Vermont? I do.
SD: Do you think there’s any question that Mitt Romney will be the eventual Republican presidential nominee?
BS: I do. But I don’t know. I’m not an expert. But I think Santorum is a strong candidate within the Republican ranks. You know, it’s not my world. There seems to be a lot of opposition to Romney and, while he certainly has the money at this point, one of the things Citizens United can do is change that in five minutes. A billionaire can say, 'OK, Rick. We like you. Here’s your check for $5 billion or $10 billion and you’re off and running.' So I don’t think Romney has it locked up. I was interested in the front page of papers all over the country of Romney winning Maine. You know how many people voted in that primary? Five, six thousand people. We’ll have that in 30 town meetings here in Vermont. If I were a Republican, I’d worry about that.
Photo of Sen. Sanders by Andy Bromage