Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced a host of ideas to address the human and economic fallout from the spread of coronavirus on Tuesday night, including having the federal government send each U.S. household $2,000 for every month that the COVID-19 outbreak persists and empowering Medicare to cover all medical needs during the pandemic. Sanders estimated that the emergency policy package would cost $2 trillion.
“Our country and, in fact, the world are facing an unprecedented series of crises,” Sanders said in an address live-streamed from Washington. ”The main point to be made tonight is that in this moment of crisis it is imperative that we stand together.”
In addition to the cash payments to all households, the Democratic presidential hopeful proposed short-term assistance for struggling small- and medium-sized businesses to help them meet payroll and an expansion of unemployment insurance to cover 100% of pay up to $75,000 a year. And he would halt evictions, foreclosures and utility shutoffs, as well as suspend mortgage payments for primary residences, utility bill payments and student loan payments for the length of the pandemic.
“We must make certain that the government is getting this money into the hands of working families and the most vulnerable as quickly as possible,” he said. “In other words, we don’t want some kind of bureaucratic arrangement where we’re talking about this for weeks and months, and people do not get the help that they need.”
The payment plan drew praise from entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential contender who has championed the idea of a universal basic income. “I like where Bernie’s head is,” he wrote on Twitter. (Yang endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden last Tuesday.)
Sanders would centralize the authority for performing these functions under a new federal agency he is calling the Emergency Economic Crisis Finance Agency.
This is kind of a no-brainer ― something that should have happened in our country many, many years ago. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
The senator from Vermont envisions creating another temporary agency to prevent the public health crisis from becoming a “moneymaking opportunity for Corporate America and Wall Street.” The agency would enforce a ban on the use of any bailout money for bonuses and stock buybacks, police a ban on pharmaceutical price gouging and investigate violations of those policies.
Sanders has for days been emphasizing how the pandemic had made more obvious the need to enact his signature policy of “Medicare for All” in order to eliminate people’s reluctance to seek medical attention.
On Tuesday night, he focused on the immediate relief the federal government can provide by empowering Medicare to cover the cost of any medical care during the COVID-19 outbreak, including testing, treatment and an eventual vaccine.
“This is kind of a no-brainer ― something that should have happened in our country many, many years ago,” he said. “But in the midst of this crisis, what I believe we must do is empower Medicare to cover all medical bills.”
Sanders also called for a series of measures aimed at shoring up the country’s capacity to absorb a spike in demand for urgent medical attention. He would expand community health centers that provide care for low-income Americans ― a longstanding priority of his ― and invoke the federal government’s wartime powers to scale up production of essential materials in short supply, such as ventilators and protective gear for medical workers. And Sanders joined former Vice President Joe Biden in backing the immediate mobilization of the U.S. military to assist in relief and medical infrastructure construction efforts, calling for use of the Army Corps of Engineers in particular.
The speech on Tuesday, delivered moments before it became clear that Biden had scored another series of primary victories against Sanders in key states including Illinois and Florida, expanded on remarks Sanders had made in a Thursday speech about the pandemic. For example, Sanders had outlined an unemployment insurance expansion that would cover annual pre-pandemic pay of $60,000 ― a lower threshold than he announced Tuesday.
Sanders’s remarks are part of a burst of activity by Republican and Democratic lawmakers seeking to limit the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sent many Americans into self-isolation.
Earlier on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who dropped out of the presidential race earlier this month, outlined stiff conditions for any federal bailout money for corporations. Last week she rolled out a plan to allot $400 billion in funding for safety net providers, paid sick leave and an economic stimulus.
In addition, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) have introduced a proposal to immediately provide the vast majority of households $2,000 a month until employment rebounds to close to what it was before the pandemic.
As a presidential candidate, Sanders has insisted that his grassroots movement is capable of pressuring Congress into adopting ambitious policies.
But on Tuesday night, he flashed a bit of the legislative realism that has characterized his three-decade career in Congress. He suggested that not every idea he proposed would pass.
“When you deal with the United States Congress you don’t get everything you want,” he said. “There will be picking and choosing here or there.”