Debunking the Myth of Bernie Sanders, the ‘Amendment King’

One frequent refrain among those supporting candidates other than Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Democratic primary for president is to discuss his lack of legislative achievement.

Sanders is entering his 14th year in the United States Senate and has been the primary sponsor of only 3 pieces of legislation that became law during that tenure.

The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013 (S. 893) is the only significant legislative achievement on Sanders’ Senate record. The other two pieces of his legislation signed into law designated the names of United States Postal facilities in Vermont.

That is still significantly better than his record during the 16 years Sanders served in the House of Representatives where not a single piece of legislation he primarily sponsored became law.

Over 29 years representing Vermont in the House of Representatives or the United States Senate, Sanders has proposed 378 pieces of legislation with only those 3 successes.

Senator Sanders’ supporters will argue that sponsoring legislation is not the only way to get things done. Claims that the Vermont Senator is the ‘Amendment King’ are frequently the immediate response whenever his legislative record is challenged.

During his time in the Senate, Senator Sanders has proposed 101 amendments. Of those, 24 have been adopted and became part of legislation signed into law.

While that seems like a solid legislative achievement, the total does not tell the whole story, or at least the recent story. Of the 24 Sanders amendments in the Senate that became law, 21 occurred between 2007 (when Sanders was first elected to the Senate) and 2012 (the end of President Barack Obama’s first term).

In the seven years since (2013-2019), the ‘Amendment King’ has managed to get 3 amendments tacked onto legislation that passed the Senate and were signed into law.

NOT ONE of those amendments have been signed into law since the 2016 election.

This mostly misleading moniker of ‘Amendment King’ dates back to a 2005 article in Rolling Stone magazine decrying the “horror show” that the House of Representatives had become under Speakers of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Dennis Hastert (R-IL) during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

During that period of Republican control of the House of Representatives (between 1995 and 2007), then-Congressman Sanders sponsored 49 amendments that were enacted into law, 17 of them passing by roll call vote, the most successful amendments of ANY member of the House of Representatives regardless of party.

PolitiFact verified this claim when Sanders used it in a campaign ad during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

But it is critical to note that while Sanders excelled at passing amendments during this window, his overall record of success with amendments is less impressive.

During his first 25 years in Washington (1991-2016), Sanders successfully passed 90 amendments that became law, an average of 3.6 per year. His fellow Senator from Vermont (Patrick Leahy) arrived in Washington in 1975, so he has spent 16 more years there than Sanders. Through 2016, he had passed 226 amendments that became law, an average of 5.5 per year.

The simple truth is that Senator Bernie Sanders is not an effective legislator in the Senate and was not an effective legislator in the House of Representatives.

To be fair, he caucused with the minority party in 12 of his 16 years in the House and he caucused with the minority party in 5 of his 13 years in the Senate. Being in the minority makes legislating difficult, and in today’s toxic political climate, can make legislating almost impossible.

The Center for Effective Lawmaking works to assess the effectiveness of individual lawmakers and legislative institutions in Congress. Their methodology accounts for whether a legislator is in the minority or majority, whether both chambers of Congress are in the control of the same party, and whether a legislator’s party controls the White House.

It was easier for a Democratic legislator to pass legislation between 2009-2010 when Democrats had unilateral control, just as it was for Republicans from 2017-2018. It would have been far more difficult during those periods for a member of the minority party to have much success. By measuring this way instead of simply counting legislation passed, a baseline can be established to provide a rating under any circumstances.

For most of Bernie Sanders’ long legislative career, he has been graded as “meets expectations.” Between 1995-1998, the prime years of the period for which Rolling Stone dubbed him the ‘Amendment King’, he was graded as “exceeds expectations.” Since announcing his first run for the Democratic nomination in 2015, Sanders has consistently graded as “below expectations.”

Senator Sanders proposes the boldest legislative agenda of any candidate in the Democratic field, with initiatives like Medicare for All, College for All, and the Green New Deal. Given his lack of a single legislative achievement in the last four years, whether by sponsoring legislation or by tacking on amendments, and given that his only period of legislative overachieving came nearly 25 years ago while a member of the House of Representatives, it is fair to question how a President Sanders would achieve the lofty promises that are central to his campaign.

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