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Warren discusses new role on Senate Armed Services Subcommittee, taxing the wealthy to bolster Social Security, and more

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to reporters in North Adams, Massachusetts city hall while State Senator Adam Hinds looks on.
Josh Landes
In August 2022, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to reporters in North Adams, Massachusetts city hall while State Senator Adam Hinds looks on.

Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren was named chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel this month. The Democrat says she wants to use the role to strengthen ethics standards for the Pentagon, which she says prioritizes defense industry profits over servicemembers’ needs. Warren is also behind a new bill that would increase taxes on wealthy Americans to strengthen and secure Social Security as well as new legislation to beef up regulation of the cryptocurrency industry. First elected in 2012, Warren intends to seek re-election in 2024. She spoke with WAMC.

WARREN: Let me give you an example. The Pentagon issues contracts with private companies, for-profit companies, to take care of military housing, to actually come on base and build it and then maintain it and then take care of people moving in and out and cleaning it up in between instead of doing that, all that work in-house, within the military. And so, they get paid a lot of money for doing that. Turns out, I started hearing, families started reaching out to me a few years back, that this housing was really awful, some of it, that people were being forced to live in military housing that had mold and mildew, that had leaky pipes and leaky roofs so that walls were wet, that they had vermin, that they had cockroaches, they had bad electrical wiring. And so, I started getting in touch with the Pentagon about this and saying, hey, we're paying these guys good money, taxpayer dollars, to provide housing for our military, and it's very substandard. And that's not what the contract agreed to. So, I pushed the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, they held some hearings, I got some provisions into the law that require more oversight of these contracts and tried to create a tenant's Bill of Rights for our military families. And I’ve just got to tell you- Basically, the Pentagon has not followed through. And there were things that were put in that statute, like a place where people could go if they wanted to report substandard housing, that just hasn't even been set up. And so, a part of what I will do now in my new position as chair of the subcommittee on personnel is, I want to hold those contractors accountable. But I want to hold the Department of Defense accountable. The Pentagon is responsible for seeing that the taxpayers are getting their money, and responsible for seeing that our military families are treated better than this. So that's going to be one of my priorities on this committee.

I wanted to ask you about a new proposal you've put forward along with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont about raising taxes to protect Social Security. Break it down for me, what exactly is this proposal? And how do you think it would protect services for Americans moving into the future?

Okay, so let me just do a quick one. You remember how Social Security was put in place back in the 1930s. But we knew back then you're going to have to make adjustments as you go along, that is, maybe increased the tax rate a little bit, as people lived longer, as different people came into the workforce, as more people were covered by Social Security. And that’s happened, about 35 different changes between the 1930s and the late 1980s. And then Ronald Reagan and the Republicans said, we're not going to make any more changes to Social Security to help bring in more revenue. And at that time, it was okay because we had plenty of money. But everybody could look out and see that at some point, the Social Security trust fund, we were spending it down a little and a little more and a little more. So, what I want to do, and Senator Sanders, Bernie and I are working together on this, is to say, okay, we've got to look at the whole system, protect it on through the rest of this century. And the way to do that is just take off the cap on what your income is when you stop paying Social Security. So right now, somebody who makes an income [of] $5 million a year is paying the same in Social Security taxes as somebody who's making about $160,000 a year. So, it's not that everybody's paying the same kind of proportion of their income. Bernie and I propose that we get rid of the cap, and that everybody who makes more than $250,000 a year also has to pay in at the same rate on Social Security on all of their earnings. And here's the deal- The amazing thing about making this change is we can do two things simultaneously. We can make sure the system is completely financially solvent through 2095. That's a long time. Plus, we could increase social security payments on average by about $200 a month. And we could concentrate that money on the people who most have to depend on Social Security, on the people who earned the least in their working years. And think about the difference that would make. It would lift more people out of poverty, it would create a little flexibility in the budget, and it would guarantee that Social Security is not only going to be there for today's seniors, but also for our children and for our grandchildren and for our great-grandchildren. I think that is what our responsibility is.

You've had at times a complicated relationship with Senator Sanders. I want to ask for your reaction to a couple sentences from his new book that just came out. He says, “Despite poor showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina,” this is in reference to the 2020 Democratic primary, you “chose to stay in the race.” “I was closer to her on the issues than any other candidate. But at the point where her endorsement could have been significant in a number of Super Tuesday states, she chose not to give it.” I wanted to get your reaction to that.

You know, I'm just not focused on re-litigating anything about the 2020 election. What I'm focused on is what we can get done right now. I'm working with Bernie to try to get this big Social Security bill through, I'm also working on trying to get universal childcare through, and I'm going to keep working on these things. I think that's where we need to put our energy and our focus. As progressives, we have so much that we have gotten done in the past two years. And we should celebrate it. We got the biggest climate package ever – paid for, I should say, by my 15% minimum corporate tax – and we got a cap on what seniors spend on insulin and what they're going to spend on prescription drugs. I think that's why we did so well in 2022, and it's also, it's the reason we're there, it's what we should be doing as progressives. We did things that are popular with the American people. I want to see us keep that momentum up. I want to see us continue to look forward, to talk about the things that we care about, about making this country work not just for a handful at the top, but making this country work for everyone.

President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan is going to be in front of the Supreme Court this month. I'm interested, this is an issue close to your heart and one that you've advocated for for years. And though Biden's plan was less than the ones you've proposed in the past, it was one that you backed passionately. How are you preparing for a potential ruling from the Supreme Court that might move this not just out of pause, but possibly into fully being blocked?

So, let me be- Let me just start with a really clear statement on this. Joe Biden has legal authority to cancel this student loan debt. And how do I know that? Well, partly because I’ve read the statute, but partly because Donald Trump did the same thing. He, with the same statute, and he canceled – I want to underscore the word canceled, not delayed, interest payments on student loans that would have been due, that would have been added to principal – he canceled billions and billions and billions of dollars’ worth for rich people, middle class people, low earning people, everybody across the board, and not one Republican raised one objection about it. Now that President Biden is doing it, and doing it in a more targeted way- We know for example, that 90% of the help in the way President Biden is doing this will go to people making less than $75,000 a year. We know it's going to go to people, 40% of them don't even have a college diploma. We know that about half of all Latinos are going to see their debt wiped out, about a third of African Americans. It’s going to help close the racial wealth gap. And that's enough for the Republicans to now say, whoa, you can't use the law to do that. And they have gotten a court to go along with them, and now it goes to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court applies the law as it is written and as it has been used, then I don't have any doubt. We're going to get that get cancelled. And that's going to be, we already know, 380,000 people right here in Massachusetts who are literally eligible right now, because their forms have been filled out, they've been approved. We're just waiting for the Supreme Court to say that the President can hit the button. But if the Supreme Court starts playing politics, what they do ultimately is they just burn more of their own credibility. Look what they've done. Look what they've done on abortions, look what they've done on unions. This is a Supreme Court that is no longer in the business of applying the law. It instead is trying to substitute its own extremist values for those of our elected officials in a democracy. So, I'm in this fight and I am not giving up. I am not giving up because this court should not be in a position of substituting its political judgment for that of the President of the United States, an elected official. It's an extremist court and we need to call them out for who they are.

You've declared your intent to run for reelection next year. What's your message for folks out in Western Massachusetts why you're the right pick to continue serving the state in the Senate?

Well, I'll start with a message about how grateful I am. I came to folks out in Western Mass 12 years ago, and I had never been in politics, and I asked for their votes and said that if you will put me there, I promise, I will fight for you and I will fight for a fairer America. And I've been able to deliver on some of that, some of it we've been able to get through. Like I said, the 15% corporate minimum that I've gotten through, hearing aids that are now sold over the counter and are saving people with hearing loss literally thousands and thousands of dollars. Working on student loan debt with the President. But it's really about being in the right fight, and that's what I've tried to do. And I ask the people of Massachusetts, send me back again, because I'm in this fight because I believe in this fight. I understand what a dangerous moment this is for our country and for our democracy, and I am grateful to have a chance to be in the fight. And I will fight my heart out for the people of Massachusetts. I believe that we can save this country, I believe we can build a stronger country that works for more of us. And that's what I'll do.

You're an outspoken critic of the cryptocurrency industry, and you've advocated for greater regulations and more controls to be placed over that world. Can you give us an update on the work you're doing in the Senate to bring more regulation into cryptocurrency?

Oh, that's a good question. So let me let me identify two different kinds of problems here. One is the kind of problem that customers get cheated. And this is the kind of thing we've lived with, you know, since the stock market was first established, and there are even names for the ways they get cheated- pump and dumps and rug polls and so on. That's something the SEC understands, it has worked on for the stock market. It needs a few more tools to get that work done. It needs more money to put more cops on the beat. But we know basically how to deal with that. And I'm pushing hard, pushing on the SEC to do this work and to make sure they've got the resources to do it. But there's a second kind of problem that's very different, and that's the problem of money laundering. Crypto is now the currency of choice for the big-time drug traffickers, for human traffickers. Ransomware- Did you know that 100%, 100% of ransomware is paid off through crypto. Crypto is now used by North Korea to help keep its nuclear program going. It's used by Iran to avoid sanctions. It's used by Russia right now. And here's the problem. There are money laundering rules, anti-money laundering rules that are basically the same and apply across the board to banks, big banks, little banks, community banks, to credit unions, to credit card companies, to gold traders, to stockbrokers, to PayPal, to Venmo, to Western Union, but they don't apply to all of crypto. And I start with a proposition that same kind of transactions, same kind of risks, should have the same rules. So, I've got a bill right now. It's bipartisan with a Republican senator from Kansas, Roger Marshall. And the idea behind this is not to reinvent the wheel. It's simply to say those same anti-money laundering rules are applicable in crypto world the same way they are everywhere else where money or money equivalents like gold or stock are being traded. I'm very hopeful about getting this bill through, because it cuts across party lines. There are Republicans and Democrats who are very worried about the implications of Russia being able to use crypto to fund its activities, to keep its economy going, very worried about drug traffickers who use crypto as a way for them safely to be able to harvest the profits from selling fentanyl and other drugs here in the United States. So, this is a part of keeping our country safe and secure and just saying crypto just have to follow the same rules as everybody else.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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