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Blog Political Profiles: U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown


“I don’t want to see people in Vermont or this country go cold in the wintertime.” – Bernie Sanders, The Vermont Digger


LIHEAP and Bernie Sanders have long been synonymous in Washington D.C. and back in his home state of Vermont, where through the years, the Senator has brought home millions of dollars in crucial winter heating assistance to thousands of families throughout his traditional winter-weather state.  Even while traveling the country running for President of the United States, longtime Vermont Senator and LIHEAP champion Bernie Sanders found time in 2015 to help secure $17 million in funding for Vermonters, demonstrating his continued commitment as one of the program’s greatest champions in Congress.


Eloquently articulating the broader importance LIHEAP makes day in and out for families struggling to keep up with plummeting temperatures and skyrocketing heating bills throughout the long, cold winter season after season, Sanders reasoned in a conversation with the State Energy Report in recent years that “LIHEAP is a lifeline to dignity for millions of senior citizens on fixed incomes and families with children.  For decades, LIHEAP has kept Americans warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  My office has received hundreds of e-mails from struggling Vermonters who have had to make the unacceptable choice of feeding their families, paying for their prescription drugs, or paying their heating bills during our frigid winters. In the richest country on the face of the earth, we cannot allow a single American to go cold in the winter, or die of heat exposure in the summer because they couldn’t afford to pay their home energy bills.  We know that during the winter, Vermont and other northern states will experience extremely cold temperatures; as southern states will experience extremely hot weather in the summer.  In addition, even when we provided full-funding for LIHEAP…millions of Americans who qualify for LIHEAP still were not able to receive the help they needed.”


Looking back over Sanders’ long, heroic support for this crucial program for cold-weather states like his home turn of Vermont, this month examines Bernie’s long and distinguished record, tracing back over a decade to when he was first elected to the Senate in 2006 after serving for 16 years in the House of Representatives, where his fight for Vermont’s share of the LIHEAP funding block began with a bang after Sanders co-sponsored the Keep Americans Warm Act of 2007 in an effort to secure $1 Billion in emergency home energy assistance, making what would become one of his signature arguments at the time for the program’s necessity, based on a theme that would continue as the years went on where “skyrocketing home heating bills already are stretching household budgets,” the Senator argued, “in the richest country on earth, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that no one has to make a choice between food or medicine or heat for their homes.  Congress must act now to deal with this national emergency.”


As the state had to step in to make up a gap between the previous year’s LIHEAP award in response to a rapid rise in demand, Vermont Governor Jim Douglas Sanders applauded Sanders aggressive response to a crisis in his home state where “the cost of heating our homes is increasing beyond the ability of many to pay, it would be unconscionable for Congress to support the President’s proposal to cut LIHEAP funding to senior citizens and low-income families. Under the present circumstances, the President and the Congress should be looking for ways to increase support for our most vulnerable citizens. That’s why I support Senator Sanders’ proposal.”


Unrelenting in his determination to see that his most exposed constituencies like Vermont’s many elderly LIHEAP-dependant households didn’t suffer further hardship than they already were, the AARP would later report on a press conference the Senator held to bring attention to the consequence of the recession’s aftermath that “more are entering the ranks of poverty,” declaring on their behalf that “we will not accept significant reductions” in funding, while reminding his fellow members of Congress that as one of the impossible choices they face within that economic hardship, “we don’t want to see people (faced) with the choice to heat their homes for winter or buy food … or prescription drugs.”


Though his Keep Americans Warm Act was filibustered, Sanders continued his fight, gaining ground at the height of the economy’s collapse in 2009 when Bernie was one of the loudest voices speaking up for those who, “as a result of the recession, and the fact that so many people are struggling, these…tonight are wondering how they are going to adequately heat their home.”  This worry was alleviated in 2010 when Sanders spoke at length with the about his crowning achievement in doubling his state’s LIHEAP funding level – courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment – to a record $35 Million, crediting a “tri-partisan effort last year that I was proud to help lead, for the very first time, we were successful in doubling LIHEAP funding to the $5.1 billion level.  As a result, an additional 1.5 million Americans were able to receive LIHEAP assistance with the average grant increasing by nearly $200.  It is essential that Congress and the president work to provide the maximum level possible for LIHEAP in FY 2010 and the years that follow.


Considering the move “a first step,” Sanders reminded his colleagues at the time that “a lot of work remains to be done during the appropriations process to make sure this funding level survives.  I look forward to working with the Obama administration and my colleagues in Congress to ensure that LIHEAP continues to receive the support it deserves.”  Always thinking out of the box for ways to ensure funding reaches the maximum demand, Bernie helped sponsor legislation for a trigger mechanism that he explained would provide “automatic increases for LIHEAP funding during energy price spikes is an innovative approach that, if structured properly, could be an important tool in keeping Americans warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”


By 2011, Sanders’ voice had been heard and respected over the previous 5 years enough to earn him the prestigious appointment, as the Boston Globe reported at the time, as “chairman of a Senate subcommittee dealing with health and aging issues. The independent and self-described democratic socialist will chair a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions that also deals with the low-income home energy assistance program, or LIHEAP.”


Providing Sanders a higher profile to speak and advocate more aggressively for LIHEAP’s sustained appropriation levels as he saw the White House propose halving the funding to $2.5 million, translating to 3.1 million families dropping off the 8.3 million that were helped nationally at its peak, the Senator took to Twitter to decry the gutting in funding, arguing that “the proposal to cut LIHEAP in half and the House Republican plan to cut more than $1 billion are both unacceptable,” adding via his website that “the latest release of federal funds still would leave Vermont with a 25 percent cut from last winter.”


Reminding readers just who was these cuts were really hurting, the Senator pointed out that the funding “as Vermont’s winter settles in, another installment of home heating aid…will help tens of thousands of senior citizens, families with children, and persons with disabilities stay warm this winter.”  Still, he stood up to the White House with his note that “while I am glad that the president is finally releasing this funding, much more must be done.  Last year Vermont received $26 million in LIHEAP funding.  Today, only $11 million in LIHEAP funding is being released.  With poverty increasing and heating oil prices skyrocketing, significantly cutting LIHEAP would cause a severe winter health emergency.”


As his home state faced skyrocketing heating oil costs, Sanders once again rolled up his sleeves after the Vermont Fuel Price Report shared the grim news for thousands of families who keep their homes warm with heating oil that fuel had jumped from $2.76 to $3.68 a gallon, fighting a trend he had been for years where the Senator had long argued that “with the price of home heating oil soaring, it’s absolutely imperative that Congress substantially increase funding for the LIHEAP program, the fuel assistance program that provides help for lower income Americans. We should also be expanding it to include more people who are being hurt by escalating energy prices. If that does not happen senior citizens on fixed incomes, and other lower income people in Vermont and throughout the country, will be going cold this winter. And that’s something we cannot allow to happen.”


Bringing home $16.6 million in LIHEAP funding to his home state in 2013, Sanders praised the “timely infusion for this vital lifeline,” while Yahoo News highlighted the Senator’s caution that “more is needed, much more must be done, and we will continue to press for additional support for LIHEAP to ensure that struggling Vermonters are able to heat their homes this winter.”  In 2014, Bernie addressed President Obama personally on his concerns over the impact the cuts to LIHEAP were having on real lives in local Vermont communities, co-authoring a letter with 44 of his fellow U.S. Senators in which they delivered an impassioned request that the White House “prioritize the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in your Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget proposal by including no less than $4.7 billion for this program that provides critical support to our most vulnerable citizens,”


Underscoring the fact that “the purchasing power of LIHEAP has declined in recent years,” the Senator revealed that “since FY 2010, the average LIHEAP grant has fallen from about 60 percent to 44 percent of the cost of home heating. For households using delivered fuels, this decline is even more dramatic, covering just 18 percent of heating oil and propane costs. With the average LIHEAP grant estimated to cover less than half of the average home heating costs for a household this winter, many low-income families and seniors will struggle to pay for the basic necessity of home energy and will have fewer resources available to meet other essential needs.”


By 2015, even as he was beginning to roll out his campaign for the White House, Politico reported that Sanders – demonstrating the kind of creative thinking he’d invested throughout the years into his fight to increase LIHEAP funding – inserted an amendment into the Keystone XL Pipeline bill to “restore funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to levels authorized in the 2009 economic stimulus bill under the condition that seniors and veterans get first priority.”  Though the measure ultimately did not make it to the President’s desk Sanders hopes to soon occupy, no doubt with a top priority in mind for his first year in office to achieve the latter goal, the Senator would not be deterred, forging ahead with a successful push to bring home $17 million in winter heating aid for his state, reminding the public that “LIHEAP is a program that proves, year after year, to be one of the most effective expenditures of taxpayer dollars, and successfully leverages investments from all stakeholders in keeping Vermont families safe and healthy.”


As a Candidate for President, Senator Sanders has been just as visionary in his proposals for helping millions of struggling Americans gain long-term energy efficiency, reasoning via his official campaign website that “energy efficiency is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ because the investments made in energy efficiency are so effective in reducing carbon pollution emissions, and the return on investment is so quick. For every dollar invested in energy efficiency technologies, like weatherization and efficient light bulbs, energy customers can enjoy up to four dollars in savings. Bernie has long been a champion of the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that help rural and low-income families make their homes more energy efficient and lower their energy bills. At a time when we spend on average of $350 billion a year on foreign oil, we must take every possible step to invest in cheaper energy here in the United States. That’s why Bernie recently introduced the Residential Energy Savings Act to provide federal loans to states to perform energy efficiency updates to provide homeowners with valuable energy savings.”




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