“I'm a progressive, but I'm a progressive who likes to get things done,” Hillary Clinton said at the first Democratic debate, in response to a question from moderator Anderson Cooper about whether she defines herself as a moderate or a progressive.
The implication was that progressive Bernie Sanders is too far to the left to accomplish anything—all of his ideas are pie-in-the-sky. You have to be able to find the bipartisan, “warm, purple space” as Clinton said earlier this year, to get anything done. Slate's Jamelle Bouie was super-impressed by this rationale, saying Clinton has “skilled use of bureaucratic power.”
The problem with this narrative is that it is completely false. Not only has Sanders gotten a lot more things done than Clinton did in her own short legislative career, he's actually one of the most effective members of Congress, passing bills, both big and small, that have reshaped American policy on key issues like poverty, the environment and health care.
The Amendment King
Congress is not known to be a progressive institution lately, to say the least. Over the past few decades, the House of Representatives was only controlled by the Democrats from 2007 to 2010, and a flood of corporate money has quieted the once-powerful progressive movement that passed legislation moving the country forward between the New Deal era and the Great Society. Yet, as difficult as it may be to believe, a socialist from Vermont is one of its most accomplished members.
Bernie Sanders was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1990, and many immediately doubted his efficacy. “It is virtually impossible for an independent to be effective in the House,” said then-Congressman Bill Richardson (D-NM). “As an independent you are kind of a homeless waif.” Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), today an outspoken advocate for Hillary Clinton, said Bernie's “holier-than-thou attitude—saying in a very loud voice he is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else—really undercuts his effectiveness.”
As if things didn't look bad enough, in 1994 the Republicans swept into power in the House of Representatives, dashing the hopes of many that Congress could do anything progressive whatsoever. But Sanders was not content with tilting at windmills. He didn't want to just take a stand, he wanted to pass legislation that improved the United States of America. He found his vehicle in legislative amendments.
Amendments in the House of Representatives are often seen as secondary vehicles to legislation that individual members sponsor, but they are an important way to move resources and build bipartisan coalitions to change the direction of the law. Despite the fact that the most right-wing Republicans in a generation controlled the House of Representatives between 1994 and 2006, the member who passed the most amendments during that time was not a right-winger like Bob Barr or John Boehner. The amendment king was, instead, Bernie Sanders.
Sanders did something particularly original, which was that he passed amendments that were exclusively progressive, advancing goals such as reducing poverty and helping the environment, and he was able to get bipartisan coalitions of Republicans who wanted to shrink government or hold it accountable and progressives who wanted to use it to empower Americans.
Here are a few examples of the amendments Sanders passed by building unusual but effective coalitions:
Corporate Crime Accountability (February 1995): A Sanders amendment to the Victims Justice Act of 1995 required “offenders who are convicted of fraud and other white-collar crimes to give notice to victims and other persons in cases where there are multiple victims eligible to receive restitution.”
Saving Money, for Colleges and Taxpayers (April 1998): In an amendment to H.R. 6, the Higher Education Amendments of 1998, Sanders made a change to the law that allowed the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to make competitive grants available to colleges and universities that cooperated to reduce costs through joint purchases of goods and services.
Holding IRS Accountable, Protecting Pensions (July 2002): Sanders' amendment to the Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act of 2003 stopped the IRS from being able to use funds that “violate current pension age discrimination laws.” Although he faced stiff GOP opposition, his amendment still succeeded along a 308 to 121 vote.
Expanding Free Health Care (November 2001): You wouldn't think Republicans would agree to an expansion of funds for community health centers, which provide some free services. But Sanders was able to win a $100 million increase in funding with an amendment.
Getting Tough On Child Labor (July 2001): A Sanders amendment to the general appropriations bill prohibited the importation of goods made with child labor.
Increasing Funding for Heating for the Poor (September 2004): Sanders won a $22 million increase for the low-income home energy assistance program and related weatherization assistance program.
Fighting Corporate Welfare and Protecting Against Nuclear Disasters (June 2005): A Sanders amendment brought together a bipartisan coalition that outnumbered a bipartisan coalition on the other side to successfully prohibit the Export-Import Bank from providing loans for nuclear projects in China.
Once Sanders made it to the Senate in 2006, his ability to use amendments to advance a progressive agenda was empowered. Here are some of the amendments he passed in the Senate:
Greening the U.S. Government (June 2007): A Sanders amendment made a change to the law so at least 30 percent of the hot water demand in newer federal buildings is provided through solar water heaters.
Protecting Our Troops (October 2007): Sanders used an amendment to win $10 million for operation and maintenance of the Army National Guard, which had been stretched thin and overextended by the war in Iraq.
Restricting the Bailout to Protect U.S. Workers (Feburary 2009): A Sanders amendment required the banking bailout to utilize stricter H-1B hiring standards to ensure bailout funds weren't used to displace American workers.
Helping Veterans' Kids (July 2009): A Sanders amendment required the Comptroller General to put together comprehensive reporting on financial assistance for child care available to parents in the Armed Forces.
Exposing Corruption in the Military-Industrial Complex (November 2012): A Sanders amendment required “public availability of the database of senior Department officials seeking employment with defense contractors” – an important step toward transparency that revealed the corruption of the revolving door in action.
Support for Treating Autism in Military Health Care: Sanders worked with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to pass an amendment by a vote of 66-29 ensuring that the military's TRICARE system would be able to treat autism.
Using the Power of a Senator
While Sanders was an amendment king who was able to bring bipartisan coalitions together to make serious changes to laws, he also knew how to be a thorn in the side of the establishment until it offered up something in return. Sanders was able to get the first-ever audit of funds given out by the Federal Reserve, which made transparent over $2 trillion of funds handed out by the secretive organization. This was a cause that Republican congressman Ron Paul (TX) had been pursuing for decades, but Sanders was able to get the votes to do it by forging a compromise that required an audit for the bailout period alone.
When the Affordable Care Act was in danger of not having the votes to pass, Sanders used his leverage to win enough funding for free health treatment for 10 million Americans through Community Health Centers. This gutsy move—holding out until the funds were put into the bill—has even Republican members of Congress requesting the funds, which have helped millions of Americans who otherwise would not have access.
Another moment came when Sanders, who was then chair of the Veterans committee, worked with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), to overhaul the Veterans Administration. McCain praised Sanders' work on the bill in an interview with National Journal. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) even went so far as to say the bill would never have passed without Sanders' ability to bring the parties to a deal.
His Theory of Change, From Burlington to the White House
The big question is, can Sanders translate his time as an effective senator into an effective president? After all, a legislative job is different than an executive job.
But Sanders has a theory of change, in order to be an executive who can pass progressive policy even in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. He frequently talks about a “political revolution” that means vastly increasing voter turnout and participation in political activities so conservative lawmakers and Big Money are unable to overwhelm public opinion. During the Democratic debate, this line had its doubters, from former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) to a skeptical Anderson Cooper.
Sanders is probably not so unsure of himself. After all, he's done it before. When Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, one of his big accomplishments was to increase civic life in the city. During the course of his terms, voter turnout doubled. In his eight years as mayor, he rejuvenated a city that was considered by many to be dying, laying out progressive policies that cities around the country later adopted, and he did all this without particularly alienating Republicans. As one former GOP Alderman noted, he implemented ideas from the Republican party that he felt were not particularly harmful to working people, such as more efficient accounting practices.
It's easy for the establishment media and politicians to make the assumption that Bernie Sanders is not an effective lawmaker or executive. He has strong convictions and he stands by them, and we're often told that makes one a gadfly—someone who is out to make a point rather than make an actual change. But with Sanders we have the fusion of strong principles and the ability to forge odd bedfellow coalitions that accomplish historic things, like the audit of the Federal Reserve or the rejuvenation of Burlington that has served as a model for cities around the country. “Don't underestimate me,” Sanders said at the beginning of the race, words that anyone who knows his political and policy history take to heart.