Sanders in Congress: He arrived in Washington an activist
Bernie Sanders arrived in Washington as an activist, not a legislator.
The Democratic presidential candidate has preferred rabble-rousing to the schmoozing required to get bills passed. So it’s not surprising that his 25-year congressional career is defined by what he’s opposed — big banks, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, tax cuts for the wealthy — rather than what he’s accomplished.
But Sanders has chalked up his share of victories as a congressman and senator. His successes in shepherding legislation into law involve less sexy stuff such as emergency funding for veterans’ health care, help for dairy farmers and securing money for community health centers after giving up on his “single payer” health care plan.
A Vermont Independent who says he’s a democratic socialist, Sanders often has found himself on the outside looking in. Republicans controlling the House set the agenda for 12 of his 16 years there. He did, however, display a knack for prevailing, albeit temporarily, on floor votes despite the odds.
Sanders has had a greater impact in the Senate, where Democrats were in control for eight of his nine years.
A look at his legislative record:
Probably Sanders’ biggest accomplishment in Congress came in 2014 while chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He worked with his House counterpart, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., on legislation to improve a veterans’ health care system scandalized by long wait times for patients and by falsified records that covered up those delays.
Sanders, Miller and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hammered out a $16 billion agreement after weeks of sometimes testy talks. At one point, Sanders and other senators refused to attend a public bargaining session called by Miller.
Eventually, the mismatched pair of Sanders and Miller, who represents Florida’s GOP-leaning Panhandle, agreed on a compromise that required the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who could not get prompt appointments at VA facilities, or who lived far from those centers.
Sanders and Miller had their disagreements, but they had little choice but to find common ground. The VA crisis was generating headlines in every congressional district as problems emerged at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide. In an election year, doing nothing was not an option.
Both men acknowledged that the bill was not what each would have written on his own. Miller wanted the VA to be able to fire senior executives without an appeal to ensure greater accountability. Sanders was wary of allowing private doctors to treat veterans, fearing it could be the first step to privatizing the VA.
Republicans say their concerns about the appeals process negotiated by Sanders have come true with the reversal of several high-profile firings and demotions by VA leaders.
The Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency that handles appeals by federal workers, reversed demotions of two VA executives accused of gaming the department’s hiring system for personal gain and the firing of an Albany, New York, medical director over patient safety concerns.
Sanders was, and still is, a proponent of a government-run, single-payer health care system patterned after Medicare. He proposed the idea in 2009 as an alternative to the health care measure developed by President Barack Obama with Democratic leaders.
Sanders was forced to abandon the effort for lack of support. He regularly complained during the writing of the president’s health overhaul that it wasn’t progressive enough.
Instead, with his support needed to pass the measure, Sanders turned his sights upon procuring money for community health centers that provide primary care to millions of people for free or at a reduced cost. In the end, he played a major role in getting more than $12 billion for community health centers, particularly in rural areas.
Sanders was instrumental in the 2009 fight to deliver money to dairy farmers struggling because of low milk prices. As the Senate considered a routine agriculture spending bill, Sanders offered an amendment to provide $350 million in emergency aid. He won a surprising 60-37 vote with help from four Republicans. Other dairy state Democrats embraced the proposal and Obama signed the measure into law.
In the House, despite a GOP stranglehold, Sanders displayed skill in winning votes on amendments to legislation, often spending bills. These included increased funds for low-income heating assistance, weatherization help for the poor and funds for rural schools.
In most instances, however, they were temporary victories; GOP leaders reversed the outcome later in the legislative process. One exception was an amendment Sanders authored with Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., to prohibit the Pentagon from reimbursing defense contractors for costs and job cuts associated with mergers. The proposal was accepted and signed into law as part of a Pentagon spending bill.
“At a time when people are scared to death about whether or not they are going to have their decent paying jobs, they do not want to see their tax dollars going to large multibillion-dollar corporations so that these companies can then merge and lay off American workers,” Sanders said.