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Hillary Clinton was a more effective lawmaker than Bernie Sanders

- April 7, 2016
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders talk over each other during the Democratic presidential primary debate on Jan. 17, in Charleston, S.C. (Mic Smith/AP)

The Democratic primary has seen a lot of discussion about Bernie Sanders’s ability, or lack thereof, to get things done in Congress. Former House member Barney Frank claimed that “Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it in terms of his accomplishments.” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was asked by Politico to name pieces of legislation Sanders has significantly influenced:

“Um,” she said, pausing for a full eight seconds while thinking, “I’m sure I could. In terms of the things that he talks the most about, is when he was chair of the Veterans Affairs committee. But he actually compromised on a whole heck of a lot. Back in … it’s not coming to my mind right now.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement. But do more systematic data confirm these anecdotal impressions?

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One more comprehensive measure of Sen. Sanders’s legislative effectiveness is how successful he has been at sponsoring legislation that is adopted by the Senate. To get a cleaner look at this issue, I developed a simple set of criteria to isolate legislation we should care about most, and looked up both senators’ legislative records.

For this debate about effectiveness, the most important pieces of legislation are arguably bills which the two members sponsored, and which proposed substantive changes in law. This excludes commemorative bills; both Clinton and Sanders, for example, passed several bills renaming post offices after prominent local residents. This also excludes resolutions, which are either symbolic or procedural in nature.

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This also excludes legislation that Sanders and Clinton co-sponsored. A bill’s sponsor typically shepherds the bill through Congress and is usually (but not always) the bill’s primary author. By contrast, a co-sponsor merely signs his or her name on to a bill after it has been written and introduced, to indicate that she or he supports it.

Here’s what the numbers say: During her eight years in the Senate, Hillary Clinton sponsored 10 bills that passed the chamber. The mean senator passes 1.4 bills a year, so Clinton’s 1.25 bills per year is approximately in line with the chamber average. By contrast, Bernie Sanders has been in the Senate nine years and has sponsored only one bill that passed.

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Of course, Sanders is not formally a member of the Democratic Party even though he caucuses with the Democrats in Congress. This may have created some tension with the Democratic leadership and cost him opportunities to pass bills.

Another way members of Congress can influence legislative outcomes is to amend a bill someone else has sponsored, particularly in the Senate. The rules in the Senate allow for much more and freer amending activity than in the House, so senators introduce (and pass) many more amendments than House members do.

Clinton successfully amended bills 67 times in her eight years in the Senate. Sanders did so 57 times in nine years. On a year-by-year basis, that comes to 8.4 per year for Clinton and 6.3 per year for Sanders. Moreover, the mean senator passed 7.4 amendments. Clinton’s is significantly higher than the mean, and Sanders’s is significantly below the mean. Put differently, Clinton passed 33 percent more amendments per year than did Sanders.

Graph by Jeff Lazarus

Graph by Jeff Lazarus

Sanders’s record during his 16 years in the House of Representatives was similar. There he didn’t pass a single bill. Granted, it’s harder for members to pass bills in the House than the Senate — the mean House member passes only 0.7 a year — but even so, one passed bill over a quarter-century in both houses of Congress is a very low number compared with his colleagues.

A more general measure of effectiveness is the legislative effectiveness scores developed by political scientists Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman. Volden and Wiseman examine all the bills a House member introduces, how far each bill gets in the legislative process, and condense this information into an overall score. Unfortunately, these scores are available only for the House of Representatives, so they don’t shed any light on Sanders’s and Clinton’s records in the Senate.

But they do tell us something about Sanders during his time in the House. And the story fits with the other evidence: Sanders’s legislative effectiveness score was below the House median in seven of the eight Congresses in which he served.

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Of course, these measures may not capture every facet of legislative effectiveness. I haven’t taken into consideration the relative importance of the bills and amendments Clinton and Sanders have passed. I’ve looked only at activity on the floor of the Senate, rather than work in committees.

Nevertheless, this particular evidence does suggest that Sanders has been less effective than Clinton, and the average member of Congress, at getting his legislation through Congress.

Jeffrey Lazarus is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.