Bernie Sanders Wants to Haul Big Pharma in Front of Congress

Bernie Sanders is living, as he puts it, in a “two-fold world.”

“On the one hand, I’m trying to do what I can in a bipartisan way,” he explains in the conference room of his Capitol Hill office on Wednesday afternoon. He brandishes a paper-clipped stack of printouts in my direction, a list of the cascading crises in health care, education, and labor Sanders thinks he could recruit some Republican allies to help solve. But, he adds, “I’m also going to continue to fight for a vision, which is not going to be passed in this Congress.” He enumerates his wishlist: Medicare for All, tuition-free college, federal protections for workers to unionize — the familiar planks of his two insurgent runs for the presidency. “I’m not going to give up on those things.”

He pauses and clicks his tongue. “So, that’s my life,” he offers in summary.

It’s a mission explained by the political dynamics Sanders sees taking shape within his own party — dynamics that suggest he’s left his progressive imprint, if not remade it in his image. President Joe Biden railed against Big Pharma with such conviction during his State of the Union address on Tuesday that Rep. Jamal Bowman (D-N.Y.) wondered if Sanders’ wrote the speech. He did not: Sanders offered Biden a few suggestions that the president accepted, but even so, “I’m not going to tell you it’s a speech that I would have given,” Sanders notes. Meanwhile, there are more progressive House members than ever carrying forward Sanders’ legacy, even as Democrats adopt a new presidential primary calendar his allies argue will kneecap future progressive candidates. “To go with one of the more conservative states in this country does not make a lot of sense to me,” he says.

“There is the chance that we can do some good things,” Sanders says of his prospects for Republican cooperation. On Thursday, he joined Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) at a press conference to demand rail workers receive seven days of paid sick time. The duo had also written a letter together pressuring rail companies to “do the right thing,” Sanders notes. Earlier that week, CSX had announced it would offer four sick days to workers voluntarily, and Sanders and Braun hoped that, with their efforts, other companies would follow suit. “We will do everything in our power to make sure that happens,” he says. “And if not, we’d love to see them here in committee,” he says, noting the oversight powers he now has as the new chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

At the very top of his list of oversight targets: Pharmaceutical executives. “The industry has gotten away with murder,” Sanders says. It’s part of a political strategy that the Vermont senator hopes will lay the groundwork on a subject where he sees less bipartisan promise. “When the president mentioned Big Pharma in his speech, not a whole lot of Republicans stood up,” Sanders observed. “I’m not so sure that that’s good politics on their part. We may or may not have some allies in the House we can work with.”

Sanders joined Rolling Stone to discuss his new chairmanship, how he plans to navigate the House’s Republican majority, the 2024 presidential election, and the state of Democratic primaries.

You’re now the chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. What sort of oversight efforts might we expect to see happen under your leadership?

In my view, the pharmaceutical industry charges the American people, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. Almost one out of four people cannot afford the medicine their doctors prescribe — which is insane, because then people get sick or they end up in the emergency room, they end up in the hospital. Meanwhile, they’re charging us outrageous prices while often getting assistance from the federal government. The [National Institute of Health] provides about $45 billion a year into research and development for new prescription drugs. We pay the highest prices in the world and the pharmaceutical industry year after year makes incredible profits, providing their CEOs outrageous compensation packages.

The one area that we’re starting off with: I wrote a letter to Mr. Bancel, who is the head of Moderna. Just a perfect example of corporate greed. Moderna developed the vaccine along with the NIH — they are the co-authors of it, they worked together. On top of that, the government provided $1.9 billion for clinical trials for Moderna and guaranteed them a certain amount of sales. And the thank you the American people get for all of that federal assistance to Moderna, is that when the government stockpile expires — which will be a number of months from now — Moderna intends to quadruple the price of the vaccine. Which means if you are uninsured or underinsured, a low-income person, it’ll be $120 bucks to get that vaccine, which means you’re probably not going to get it. Maybe you’ll die, maybe get sick. And that to me is outrageous, unacceptable. We intend to chat with Moderna about that. 

Your Republican House counterparts plan to dedicate their committee agenda to the culture wars — anti-critical race theory, anti-LBGTQ, and related topics. Are you planning on any counter-programming to combat the narratives espoused in that work?

A number of months ago, you had Republicans saying, “We’re worried about the debt ceiling, and we’re going to use the debt ceiling to cut Social Security and Medicare.” They backed down completely. Why? Because you can’t go to the American people and say, “We’re gonna cut Social Security and Medicare.” [Eds note: Some Republicans have called for those cuts, some haven’t.] America says, “Give me a break, of course, you’re not going to do that. You want my vote? You’re going to cut Social Security and Medicare? It ain’t gonna happen.” I think on many of these issues, they may think it’s good to be anti-woke and all that stuff. I think people are worried about much more important and substantive issues than those things. 

So are you saying that it would be a mistake for Democrats to push back against the right’s culture war — to use your Senate soapbox, for example, to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R-Fla.) decision to strip Advanced Placement courses on African American history from public schools?

No. What’s going on in Florida and elsewhere is completely outrageous. In life, we have to face the unpleasant realities, and the reality of American history is that there was slavery — the horrors of slavery, the barbarity of slavery, and its repercussions and segregation and racism in all of its forms, the terrible things that we’ve done to the Native American people. That’s a reality. I wish it weren’t the case, but it is the case. To try to push that under the rug or to not expose young people to that reality is doing a disservice to the country, to human freedom, and to the intellectual growth of young people. Truth is a pretty good thing. We should be discussing truth and reality and not running away from it.

The idea that teachers are now gonna look over their shoulder about what they’re teaching or the books have been bad. It’s awful. It’s an issue that we will deal with, but I’m not sure exactly in what capacity.

Divided government means that President Biden will have to work more closely with Republicans than he did during the last two years. I know that you and the president had a very collegial and collaborative relationship under unified Democratic control. Is that continuing under these new circumstances — and is he still interested in hearing what the left has to say?

Well, I think so. We have access to the administration at the highest levels. I think you heard the President’s speech last night — I’m not going to tell you it’s a speech that I would have given — but it was one of the most progressive speeches I think we have heard for a long time. He talked about another issue that we’re going to deal with, and that is a crisis in public education — the fact that we’re losing teachers. Low wages make it very difficult for young people to want to go into teaching as a profession. We heard the president say, “Raise teacher salaries,” an issue that I look forward to working with him on.

We intend to do things a little bit outside of the box. So we’ll be holding the hearings that Senate Committees hold —  we’ll do a lot of them. But I also intend to use my position to advocate for positions in a variety of ways. So on Monday night, we’ll be holding a national virtual town meeting, right here from the [Capitol[ Visitor Center with Becky Pringle, who’s head of the NEA, and Randi Weingarten, who’s head of the AFT, we’ll have teachers. We’ll talk about the crisis that teachers are facing in the classroom right now.

When I ran for president, I advocated that no teacher should earn less than $60,000 a year. That’s my view today. But my point is that we’re going to work inside the Beltway, outside of the Beltway, at the grassroots level. Not just among senators.

Going back to the previous two years for a moment: Democrats weren’t able to pass Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, despite controlling both chambers of Congress.  Is there anything about the last two years that made you reconsider your priors about how policy and politics work?

No. I’m very proud of the role that I played as chairman of the Budget Committee during the American Rescue Plan, [the 2021 pandemic relief package that passed with only Democratic votes]. I think that the crises that we face in this country today are not only the objective economic realities of 60 percent of the people living paycheck to paycheck. The other thing is that people, I think, are kind of giving up on politics or the belief that, in democracy, the government is capable of responding to their needs. That bothers me very, very much.

Build Back Better was an enormously popular piece of legislation in every respect. It demanded that the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes. We dealt with childcare, with higher education. We were expanding Medicaid to cover dental. If you look at Biden’s polling when we passed the American Rescue Plan, he was at the highest point. Build Back Better was an attempt not to deal just with emergency, but the structural crisis. We came close, we came two votes away from getting that on. And I think that loss was very harmful to Biden in terms of his popularity.

Some members of the Senate are indebted to corporate America and their wealthy campaign contributors, and they will do the bidding of those folks rather than the needs of the American people. That’s the reality. But I think what I learned is that if you do the right thing by people — and that’s the American Rescue Plan and Build Back Better — people want government to respond to their need.

What are your feelings on the state of Democratic primaries?

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that the Democrats that their national meeting did not deal with the role of Super PACs in the Democratic primary. What we are seeing right now is super PACs — in some cases, literally funded by Republicans, others are from just plain old billionaires — trying to defeat progressive candidates. We ran against that with [former Sanders presidential campaign aide and Ohio congressional candidate] Nina Turner. We ran against that with [former Texas congressional candidate] Jessica Cisneros. We ran against that with [Rep.] Summer Lee [(D-Pa.)], who managed to win. But I worry very much that big money will try to defeat progressives in primaries, and we’ve got to do everything we can to prevent that from happening.

I anticipate that it will be a lot of big money trying to defeat people like [Rep.] Cori Bush [D-Mo.] and Summer and others. I’ll do my best to protect them. One of the things that we have managed to do — I don’t think it’s gotten the attention that it deserves. I saw last night, I just bumped into them with Jamal [Bowman] and everyone. I was elected to the House in ‘91. Let me tell you — it’s a huge difference. You have more strong progressives in the House today than — I don’t know about American history, but certainly in the modern history of this country. We’ve worked hard to make that happen. It was nice to see them all last night.

Some of your allies have voiced frustration about the Democrats’ new presidential primary calendar. They think that South Carolina going first is a blow to progressive candidates. Do you agree with that position?

It should not be South Carolina. South Carolina is one of the more conservative states in the country. It’s a state with very low-density union representation. It’s not as they by any means that I would have picked. If the criticism of Iowa is that it’s too white, fine. There are other states where you have more balanced diversity. But to go with one of the more conservative states in this country does not make a lot of sense to me.

Who do you think you can work with among your Republican colleagues?

I’ve had long discussions with [Sens.] Lisa Murkowski [(R-Alaska)] and Susan Collins [(R-Me.)] on rural health care. Maine is an extremely rural state, Alaska is the most rural state in America. Both of them, as it happens, are very strong on rural health care. On labor: We have a meeting tomorrow with Senator Braun, who I think has the right view on whether rail workers deserve paid sick leave. I think even on certain issues [Sen.] Rand Paul [(R-Ky.)] and I can work together. There are others as well.

It is my goal to accomplish as much as we can. So whether you’re Republican or Democrat, your constituents don’t want high priced prescription drugs. They want to be able to access a doctor. For me, we’ve played an active role in the past in expanding community health centers through the Affordable Care Act and the American Rescue Plan, and I want to continue to do that. Senator Cassidy was sitting where you were yesterday. We had a long chat. So I look forward to working with my colleagues to get real things done.


Do those colleagues have any sway with their House Republican counterparts?

We’re reaching out, we’ve got some phone calls to be made. But you’re right. We get things done in the Senate, not the House. I would think there are people in the House who understand. I was mentioning to somebody just the President mentioned Big Pharma, not a whole lot of Republicans stood up. I’m not so sure that that’s good politics on their part. We may or may not have some allies in the House who we can work with.