Fact Checker: Just how effective was Bernie Sanders with a Republican Congress?
“Bernie Sanders passed more amendments in a Republican Congress than any other member.”
Source of claim: “Effective,” an ad paid for by Bernie 2016 Campaign Committee in support of Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The television ad airing in Iowa and New Hampshire casts Sanders as a bipartisan stalwart who works across the aisle with Republicans to get things done. “Sanders is one of Congress’s most successful brokers,” the ad quotes from an October 2015 Daily Beast article while a narrator voices over the claim about amendments.
Fact Checker examined whether Sanders passed more amendments than any other colleague in a Republican-controlled Congress, which is a statement he has repeated elsewhere. We’ll look at the pieces of the claim one by one.
The Sanders camp cited congressional research showing 17 amendments sponsored by Sanders passed between 1995 and 2005. The data is a little dated but the time frame lines up with his service.
The research identifies the top 10 senators for 1995-2005. Sanders ranked No. 1 at sponsoring successful amendments, edging out Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, with 16; Rep. Christopher Smith, R-NJ, with 14; and Benjamin Gilman, R-NY, with 13, according to the data.
Sanders research has an important qualifier: The query includes only amendments passed by roll-call votes, which excludes a substantial portion passed by voice votes.
The Fact Checker independently researched the votes using a congressional database.
When searching only roll call votes, we found the same numbers. The picture looks a little different when including voice votes. Sanders sponsored 42 adopted amendments, 18 of which became law. Traficant, who served one less term in that time frame than Sanders, had 121 amendments, including 41 in bills that became law. Some bills had multiple amendments.
For comparison, in that time frame, former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach, who served in the House from 1977-2007, sponsored one successful amendment, which passed by roll call; former Iowa Rep. Jim Nussle didn’t sponsor any; Iowa Rep. Steve King had 12, four by roll call; and former Iowa Rep. Tom Latham had five amendments, one by roll call. In a review of a dozen more congressmen, no others had more success with amendments than Sanders, other than Traficant.
Warren Gunnels, policy director for Sanders, said the campaign specified roll-call votes because they are more consequential and drive debate. More is at stake for lawmakers who must officially register a yea or nay, he said.
Voice votes occur when a consensus agrees to pass the measure with little disagreement, he said. They are often procedural, don’t have to be done in person and lawmakers don’t have to register their vote, he said.
“A way to measure the true success or failure of a member of Congress is to look at actual amendments that receive roll call votes,” Gunnels said. “When they have to say, ‘Can I defend this vote with my constituents?’”
Leach, now a visiting professor at the University of Iowa law school, said voice votes on inconsequential and consensus issues streamlines the legislative process, but cautioned measuring bipartisanship through amendments can be misleading.
Ranking committee members have greater influence in offering amendments, partly because of their reputations but also because they tend to have more professional staff who can craft the well-written legislation necessary for passage, he said. And quantity is not an equivalent for quality, he said.
“A member might pass a passel of trivial amendments that might not matter much and have a bigger score card than someone who passes one serious amendment which might have serious consequences,” he said.
Voice votes and roll call votes serve different purposes, but the Sanders ad didn’t make clear his reference was to a subset of amendments when claiming he “passed more amendments in a Republican Congress than any other member.”
In our review, which was not exhaustive, we found at least one Democratic colleague — Rep. Traficant — who in fewer terms passed far more amendments.
It’s true the Vermont senator is more prolific than many lawmakers at sponsoring successful amendments, particularly more consequential ones requiring roll-call votes, but taken at face value the claim is off the mark.
Fact Checker scores this claim a D.
The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/office holder or a national candidate/office holder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.
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This Fact Checker was researched and written by B.A. Morelli.