By Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders
WASHINGTON — Over the past year, Republicans have made their priorities clear. Their effort to repeal Obamacare would have left tens of millions of people without health insurance. Now Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, wants to ram through an enormous tax giveaway to the wealthy before seating Doug Jones, Alabama’s newly elected Democratic senator.
The Republican agenda on health care and taxes may be popular with wealthy campaign donors, but it is widely disliked by the American people. It’s no wonder why. Despite a booming stock market and record corporate profits, workers in this country are being squeezed by flat wages, soaring household expenses and declining savings. They want Washington to start working for them and to spend tax dollars investing in our future — not bankrupting it.
With a government funding deadline looming on Friday, congressional Republicans face a choice. Will they spend this week just trying to deliver partisan tax breaks for the rich? Or will they work with Democrats to pass a budget that supports working people?
Right now Congress’s to-do list is long. Before we even get to the budget, we must take care of several urgent, overdue responsibilities that Republicans have ignored. We must fulfill our promise to 800,000 Dreamers — aspiring young Americans who will lose their legal immigration status if we don’t act. We also need to renew expired funding for community health centers and the Children’s Health Insurance Program so that tens of millions of families and nine million children don’t lose access to affordable health care.
These are basic responsibilities and they cannot wait. But our vision is bigger. We must look beyond the bare minimum, to stop lurching from crisis to crisis trying desperately to keep the lights on. This is the moment to focus on our core values and to carefully choose what we will invest in.
At a time when the American economy is rigged in favor of the rich and giant corporations, the coming federal funding bill is a chance to show that our country still respects hard work. We recognize that we cannot do everything we’d like to do before the end of the year, but there is room in the budget to take real, immediate steps in this direction — by easing household costs for working parents and students, by protecting workers’ pensions and Social Security, and by improving access to health care for veterans and for people who need mental health services.
Over the past generation, the costs of child care have jumped nearly 1,000 percent. That puts a lot of financial pressure on working parents, and it forces many to make difficult compromises on the quality of care they can afford. If Congress doubles federal support for child care in this year’s spending bill, we could guarantee high-quality care for nearly a quarter of a million more children.
Student loan debt is another major burden for many people, including those in lower-paying public service jobs, like teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers, social workers and military personnel. Ten years ago, Congress created a program to help wipe out student loan debt for these public servants, hoping it would encourage more people to give back to their communities. But because of failures in student loan servicing and a lot of bureaucratic nonsense, many might not get the forgiveness they’ve earned. Congress can easily fix this in the funding bill and help tens of thousands of people.
To strengthen Americans’ economic security, it’s not enough to reduce basic expenses. We must also protect retirement — and that means pensions and Social Security. It was Wall Street greed that made our economy crash in 2008, not America’s truckers, warehouse workers, retirees and widows. But as a consequence of that crash, the pension funds of many workers are now on the brink of failure. Congress can use this funding bill to shore up these retirement plans and make sure nearly 1.5 million American workers aren’t left holding the bag for Wall Street’s mistakes.
For millions of others, Social Security is a lifeline in retirement. But many older people and Americans with disabilities are now struggling to get their benefits because budget cuts have forced the agency running Social Security to cut thousands of jobs and close 64 field offices since 2010. Congress should restore funding to the agency and help fill the gaps in service so that people can get the benefits they have earned.
This year’s debate over Obamacare was a powerful reminder about the enormous economic burden posed by health care in America. We must keep working to protect the availability of critical, affordable health care for families. This is a huge task, but there are a couple of specific, obvious ways we can make a difference right now in the federal budget.
Mental health care is one. Half of all Americans will experience addiction or a mental health problem in their lifetime. These problems can devastate families emotionally and financially, especially without treatment. The federal government has several programs that support mental health services, but we’re just not doing enough to ensure people get the care they need.
More mental health care is also critical to fighting the opioid epidemic, which is raging across the country without regard to politics — devastating workers and families in our home states of Massachusetts and Vermont, but also in Senator McConnell’s Kentucky. If Congress doubled its funding for key mental health priorities, an extra billion dollars would go to programs that now help support treatment for more than seven million people.
We can also protect and improve health care for America’s veterans. Our service members risked their lives to defend us all — and there is no excuse for nickel-and-diming their health and long-term care. Congress should protect the ability of the Veterans Affairs department to employ thousands of doctors and nurses and to build and maintain extended-care centers for our veterans.
The task in front of Congress over the coming week boils down to a basic question: Does Washington work for all of us or just for those at the top? Congress has a chance, right now, to take steps that will make life a bit better for millions of working people immediately and in the years to come. We should seize it.
Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts; Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) is an independent senator from Vermont.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.