Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., unceremoniously launched his long-shot bid for the presidency on Thursday, becoming the first official opponent to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
As a self-described Socialist-Democrat, Sanders is a staunch advocate for increasing the role of government. In his career in the House and Senate he has weighed in on an array of issues affecting federal operations, typically coming down favorably on the side of federal employees.
Most recently, Sanders played a key role in the major Veterans Affairs Department reform law passed last year. Sanders, who co-authored the VA Access, Choice and Accountability Act, fought to bring more resources to the department to allow it to hire more physicians and nurses, as well as to build and update facilities. The second-term senator advocated giving VA direct hiring authority, allowing it to add new staff quickly and without the usual red tape.
While his Republican counterparts were focusing on ways to make it easier to terminate VA employees, Sanders said he wanted to be careful to avoid “wholesale political firings.” As a compromise with Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the law provided the VA secretary with increased authority to fire senior executives, but -- unlike the original House legislation -- included an expedited appeals procedure to ensure some due process.
Sanders has also played a critical role in reforming -- or not reforming, as the case may be -- the U.S. Postal Service. The liberal hero has galvanized left-wing support for several years to ensure postal legislation provides growth opportunities rather than service cuts. He introduced a measure last Congress that -- contrary to a committee-backed, bipartisan proposal -- would block the Postal Service from moving forward with planned facility closures, require Saturday mail delivery and eliminate the agency’s mandate to prefund retirees’ health benefits.
The senator has proven to be a thorn in the side of other lawmakers looking to assuage the various parochial interests of postal management, unions and customers. Sanders has said “providing fewer services and poorer quality is not the way to save the Postal Service,” and has spoken out against job cuts at the agency, arguing “good-paying postal jobs” can help protect the middle-class in local economies.
Pay and Benefits
Sanders has pushed for stronger compensation for the federal workforce throughout his congressional career. He has taken a particular interest in raising the pay of low-wage federal contractors as part of his larger push to boost the federal minimum wage. The long-time advocate for the poor helped to persuade Obama to increase the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10, and has taken part in several rallies since the president signed that executive order to again increase the lowest allowable pay to $15.
Federal retirees would also have an advocate in a Sanders presidency, as the senator was among the most outspoken against proposals to lower the inflation calculation for cost-of-living adjustments for retirees’ annuities. He also has backed legislation to allow retirees to take a tax deduction on their Federal Employees Health Benefits Program plans.
Sanders has on multiple occasions thrown his support behind ensuring federal employees receive retroactive pay in the event of shutdown. He has sponsored or cosponsored many bills affecting federal employee benefits as a senator, including proposals to give feds paid parental leave, equal benefits for same-sex domestic partners, a wider array of care for feds injured on the job and stronger health care for federal firefighters. In 1999, when he was still in the House, Sanders authored a bill to give FEHBP participants coverage for alternative forms of medicine, such as certified acupuncturists and massage therapists.
A Sanders administration appears unlikely, with the senator trailing Clinton in the polls by a seemingly insurmountable margin. The Sanders campaign promises to carry the torch in promoting the federal government and its employees more than any other candidate, however, and feds may want to pay attention to the senator’s ability to influence the national conversation.