Editorial: Delegation poised to help reform nation (Rutland Herald)

Now is the season of Sanders. That's Bernie Sanders, Vermont's iconoclastic U.S. senator, who for decades has been a voice in the wilderness concerning the excesses of capitalism. Now the wilderness of economic collapse has surrounded all of us.

At recent public forums, Sanders has been received by Vermonters like a rock star. Large crowds have turned out to voice their views and to hear from the senator who has been warning for decades about the way the government was allowing large corporate interests to imperil the well-being of ordinary Americans.

Sanders drew his inspiration intellectually from early 20th century socialists, such as Eugene Debs, which allowed his opponents to portray him as a fringe character or a left-wing crank. But Sanders' message was consistent, and his favorite adjective over the years continued to be "outrageous."

Is there any doubt now about the outrageous abuses that have occurred because big money was allowed to have its way with the American public? Recent events have provided a textbook lesson in Bernie Sanders' politics, and Vermonters who have re-elected him consistently are grateful they have a voice in Washington willing to tell it like it is about the abuses now punishing the American people.

The greed of corporate America is a fundamental premise of Sanders' view, and now we have witnessed the way that a hunger for riches can warp the view of otherwise bright people and create perverse incentives for abandoning common sense. Those inclined to refrain from the harsh tone of Sanders' rhetoric may quarrel about whether people on Wall Street were motivated by greed or were acting in good faith on information distorted by wishful thinking. What it comes down to is that when a system governed by the profit motive fails to hold in check the worst tendencies of those seeking profits, the whole country suffers.

Now the country has come to Sanders. He has been urging laws to hold banks and other institutions of capitalism accountable, to end corporate welfare and to enact tax policies fairer to ordinary Americans. That is likely to happen. He has been urging a system of health care for all, and we are heading in that direction.

We have differed with Sanders on his aversion to free trade; in any event, at a time of serious recession, economists who remember Smoot-Hawley from the 1920s are not likely to urge a new wave of protectionism. We also supported the $700 billion financial bailout, which Sanders opposed because it seemed like a giveaway to irresponsible banks. We still believe the bailout was necessary, but Sanders seems to have been right about the giveaway.

Sanders is not the only member of the Vermont delegation whose voice has gained new authority. Sen. Patrick Leahy is now the third most senior senator, and as chairman of the Judiciary Committee his voice on issues involving our justice system is likely to shape the course of history for years to come. Policy on a host of issues related to criminal justice and the judiciary is likely to change. As the nation reckons with the abuses of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other crimes of the Bush administration, Leahy will be in a position to lead the conversation.

Leahy is also in line to become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee now that Sen. Robert Byrd has given up that post, leaving the chairmanship to Sen. Daniel Inouye. But Inouye is 84 years old, and no one knows how long he will serve as chairman. If Leahy becomes chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he will be one of the most powerful members of Congress.

Meanwhile, Leahy is chairman of the subcommittee on foreign operations, which handles the foreign aid budget. Hillary Clinton, as the new secretary of state, plans to strengthen America's diplomatic corps and build up the State Department's capacity to wield the kind of soft power that President Bush neglected. Leahy will be in the middle of that discussion.

The third member of Vermont's congressional delegation, Rep. Peter Welch, is well positioned to gain influence in the coming years. He has won the confidence of the House leadership, which placed him on the influential House Rules Committee, and he has been in the thick of the debate about the most consequential issues of our time. His politics are liberal with a pragmatic bent, much like those of President-elect Barack Obama. Welch is comfortable delving into the details of complex policy questions, and as Obama unfurls his agenda next year, Welch will be able to help move that agenda forward.