Vermont finds itself in an enviable and historic situation with the U.S. Senate chairs of both the appropriations and budget committees hailing from the Green Mountain State.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, is chair of the appropriations committee and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent, is chair of the budget committee.
This is the first time one state has claimed both seats since the creation of the budget committee in 1975, according to Daniel Simmons, assistant professor of political science at St. Michael’s College.
“It’s certainly a feather in the cap for Vermont to have both senators” Simmons said.
As chair of the budget committee, Leahy thinks it will be an advantage to Vermont in the ways he can impact issues ranging from national nutrition to military spending.
Leahy in a phone interview Jan. 22 said he learned as chair of the agriculture committee the kind of effect a leader can have. He touted a big increase to the Green Mountain National Forest and the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act as achievements.
Some of old timers thought the Organic Foods Production Act was “a crunchy granola thing,” Leahy said — “That crunchy granola thing is now a $56 billion industry.”
As judiciary chair he was able to influence patent laws. Vermont had more patents per capita most years than any other state — which created thousands of jobs, Leahy said.
Chairs of committees should look at what they can do for their state and the country at large, he said.
He is proud of his work on the Violence Against Women Act, protections for the queer community, for Native Americans, and children affected by sex trafficking.
Leahy said he is hopeful that Sanders, as head of the budget committee, will be successful in sending items like minimum wage rates to the appropriations committee where he can find the money for it.
Sanders did not return repeated calls.
What’s in a chair?
Power given to committee chairs has diminished over time, with budget bills being passed by omnibus spending bills. Traditionally budgets originated in the House and were passed on to the Senate, Simmons said.
Since 2008, the chambers of Congress have not been able to come to an agreement about separate budget appropriations bills. As the deadline for the ending of the fiscal year approaches, an omnibus budget bill rolls appropriations into one large bill, he said.
This diminishes the power of the committees to decide budget items giving more power to House and Senate leaders to hammer out a bill before a government shutdown, Simmons said. An omnibus bill is then decided by both chambers of Congress with an up or down vote.
Leahy is granted additional authority as president pro tempore of the Senate — he is third in line for president, after Vice Pres. Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, should something happen to those above him.
Among the things Simmons said Sanders and Leahy may be able to achieve are initiatives on climate change, energy production, help for Vermont’s dairy industry and broadband expansion.
Finding federal grants or other support for broadband expansion is important to Vermont, Simmons said. He was optimistic about the prospects of Vermont’s senators shepherding this through the budget process after the pandemic demonstrated how important it is to the state.
Rich Clark, professor of political science at Castleton University, thinks it is possible that Sanders and Leahy might influence spending on Lake Champlain cleanup.
“Over his years of service, Leahy has been wonderful at bringing resources to our state,” Clark said. “Bernie has also benefited the state. Bernie and Ben and Jerry’s are Vermont’s greatest ambassadors.”
Clark said it’s odd that Sanders has risen so much in a party he hasn’t joined.
“If you’re a Subaru salesman and you pull up in a Toyota, it’s harder to sell the car,” Clark said.