Sen. Bernard Sanders’ promises of a democratic socialist revolution have enthralled liberal voters this campaign season, but the Vermont independent’s legislative record shows he has had a tough time turning his progressive vision into reality.
During his quarter-century in Congress, Mr. Sanders has been the chief sponsor of just three bills that were signed into law: two renaming U.S. Postal Service offices in his home state of Vermont and one that increased the annual cost-of-living raise for veterans’ benefits, which he secured as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in 2013.
It’s a record matched by most other members of Congress, who struggle to find legislative niches where they can advance their priorities. It also underscores the concerns among many in the Democratic Party establishment that their champion in next year’s elections needs to have a record of successes in addition to a liberal vision.
All told, Mr. Sanders introduced 353 bills during 16 years in the House and nine years in the Senate, giving him a success rate of just less than 1 percent. By comparison, Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who like Mr. Sanders has amassed a quarter-century in Congress, has had eight bills signed into law out of 376 introduced.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom Mr. Sanders is challenging for the Democratic nomination, spent eight years in the Senate. She introduced 409 bills on which she was the lead sponsor, and three became law: renaming a post office, naming a highway and establishing a national historic site in Troy, New York, to recognize female labor leader Kate Mullany.
Mrs. Clinton has not directly attacked Mr. Sanders’ record as a lawmaker, but she has fed the impression that he is ineffective.
“I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” Mrs. Clinton said at the inaugural Democratic presidential debate this month in Las Vegas. The line drew applause, and she started incorporating it into her stump speech.
“I think this does pose a problem for him because [Mrs. Clinton] is arguing that she is a pragmatic progressive who can get things done, and that would be a clear swipe at his inability to get legislation passed,” said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
He said it was a fair criticism of Mr. Sanders’ legislative record.
“It has been difficult for him to get bills passed because he is much more liberal than the typical senator,” he said. “It suggests that it would be difficult for a President Sanders to get legislation through Congress.”
The Sanders campaign declined to participate in reporting for this article.
But Mr. Sanders has shown that he is keenly aware of being labeled an ineffective radical in Washington.
At one recent campaign rally, he insisted that there is “nothing that I am telling you today that is pie-in-the-sky utopia.”
Speaking to NBC’s “Today” program” last week, he said he would do a better job than President Obama of breaking congressional gridlock and getting his agenda passed.
“I will do it differently [than Mr. Obama],” he said. “Because at the end of the day, what they are really upset about is that big money controls what goes on in Congress. And the only way that we change that is when millions of people come forward and demand the government represent all of us and not just the billionaire class.”
The Sanders campaign website brags that he is the “Amendment King” — a title bestowed on him in a 2005 Rolling Stone article that said he had more amendments passed in the House than any other lawmaker over the previous decade, and at a time when Republicans controlled the chamber.
Most of those were amendments to spending bills and were not considered controversial or worth a fight. They included shifting money to energy efficiency programs and low-income heating assistance.
He also won votes on amendments designed to limit the kinds of records that federal investigators could demand libraries turn over under the Patriot Act.
But his bigger-ticket proposals often ran into trouble. The Rolling Stone article tracked Mr. Sanders’ work on three amendments, two of which cleared the House but were later stripped out of the bills.
David W. Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University, doubted Mr. Sanders would do any better as president than he has done as a senator. He said Congress as an institution is stacked against radical changes.
“Under our system,” he said, “it’s hard to get anything passed of consequence in Congress no matter whether it is centrist ideas, moderately conservative, moderately liberal, very liberal, very conservative — and the further it is from the center of things, the harder it is.
“His record is as an advocate, not as someone who has accomplished a lot in terms of getting legislation passed. But that’s principally a function of where he stands,” said Mr. Rohde. “If you look at the Republicans in the Freedom Caucus in the House, you find that they have very few bills collectively that are passed into law. That’s because they are far from the center and it is very hard to get things through.”
Mr. Sanders already has tried to get his agenda through the Senate with amendments and bills to break up big Wall Street banks, expand Social Security, create a European-style single-payer health care system and provide free college tuition for most students. Even when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and President Obama occupied the White House in 2009 and 2010, those proposals failed to gain traction.
Speaking on NBC, Mr. Sanders said voters will warm to his vision once they realize how far the country has drifted toward it with the advent of Social Security, Medicare and the National Park Service. He said other countries have pioneered the health care, family and medical leave, and education programs that he is proposing.
“I think once we get these issues out and talk about creating a government and programs that work for ordinary people rather than just the very wealthy, I think people will understand what we are talking about,” he said.