POLITICS

Bernie Sanders Has A Secret Weapon In Pushing Democratic Policy Through Senate

Veteran political aide Bill Dauster came out of retirement to pass some of Democrats' biggest policy priorities.
Bill Dauster, Democrats’ top lawyer on the Senate Budget Committee, is constructing arguments to help the party pass le
Bill Dauster, Democrats’ top lawyer on the Senate Budget Committee, is constructing arguments to help the party pass legislation via the budget reconciliation process.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told the American public it was possible to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour with only a simple majority in the Senate.

In Washington, Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, wasn’t banking on political insiders taking his word for it. He wanted them to take Bill Dauster’s word.

Dauster is Democrats’ top lawyer on the Senate Budget Committee, which Sanders chairs. For the past two months, Dauster constructed Democrats’ legal argument in defense of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour without a single Republican vote.

As Democrats try to navigate a 50-50 majority in the Senate, their only hope of passing some of their biggest policies — short of blowing up the Senate’s 60-vote threshold needed to move legislation past a filibuster — is through a process called budget reconciliation. It’s a limited legislative maneuver that allows bills to pass with a simple majority, as long as they have a direct impact on the federal budget and don’t raise the deficit outside a certain time period. 

It’s Dauster’s job to argue that Democrats’ proposals fit that framework. 

His first test was a big one: including a $15 minimum wage in the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill President Joe Biden signed into law this month.

But Dauster still believes it should have, and he believes it could work next time. He demonstrated out-of-the-box thinking that opened a new path for Democrats as they strategize around their next big pieces of legislation. 

In some ways, Dauster fits perfectly within Sanders’ world. Sanders, a progressive champion, has dedicated his political life to expanding people’s imaginations as to what is possible in America ― free college, universal health care, higher wages. Now, Dauster wants to push the Senate to reimagine the budget process in order to pass major policy.

But Dauster isn’t a veteran Sanders aide or even a progressive activist. He’s a longtime Senate aide who came out of retirement for this job.

“This year, the first year of the Biden administration, with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House, is one of those one-in-12 type of years that you can get things done. Those are the types of years that make the other 11 years worth [getting] through,” Dauster said.

Dauster (center right) was deputy chief of staff to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (center) for six years and worked for
Dauster (center right) was deputy chief of staff to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (center) for six years and worked for a number of other senators over the years.

He’s a “legendary figure” on Capitol Hill, as Jim Manley, who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), puts it. Dauster was Reid’s deputy chief of staff for six years. He’s worked for 11 former senators, including some of the body’s most storied members like Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Since 1986, he’s served as the top lawyer on the Senate’s Budget, Finance, and Labor and Human Resources committees. He did a stint in Bill Clinton’s White House as an economic adviser in the 1990s before coming back to the Senate. And he retired in 2017, when serving as policy director for Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Dauster is loved, trusted and, above all, respected, by both progressives and centrists. And it’s Dauster, a man of the institution, who is saying Democrats should go really big on policy, regardless of whether Republicans are on board.

“He has built a reputation as an honest broker, a brilliant deal-maker and an incredibly generous soul,” Van Hollen said of Dauster on the Senate floor four years ago.

Sanders’ office doesn’t exist in a silo anymore. He chairs a committee central to passing some of Democrats’ biggest policy priorities. Those close to him, like former campaign manager Faiz Shakir, are now in constant communication with the White House. Several of his top aides have taken jobs in the administration. He works closely with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and was one of the leading progressive voices backing the American Rescue Plan. 

“I was shocked, pleasantly, that Sen. Sanders managed to coax him out of retirement,” Manley said. “To me that indicates that Sen. Sanders might finally be getting serious about playing the inside game and try to get stuff passed.”

Losing this first $15 minimum wage fight was a major blow, but Dauster came back to the Senate with one goal in mind: to pass big policy. And if reconciliation isn’t the right path, Dauster is fully on board with getting rid of the filibuster, too.

From left: Sharon Beth Kristal, Tom Jones, Dauster, Charlotte Ivancic, and Adam Samuel Roth conduct a Torah study group in 20
From left: Sharon Beth Kristal, Tom Jones, Dauster, Charlotte Ivancic, and Adam Samuel Roth conduct a Torah study group in 2007 in the Rayburn House Office Building. Dauster sees his rabbinical studies as an exercise in improving his budgetary expertise.

Democrats’ Chief Nerd

Four years ago, at the age of 59, Dauster retired because working under a Republican majority in the Trump era wasn’t fun, he said. He told his local Jewish newspaper he was leaving the Senate to read the classics and watch movies. He did some of that. But mostly, he studied. 

He signed up for classes at the University of Maryland, College Park, where there’s a program for 60-year-olds to take courses alongside undergraduates. He took classes on Judaism, rabbinical studies and Hebrew. He read Greek literature — not in Greek, he clarified.

Dauster likes to study. His Twitter account links to his user profile on Wikipedia, a very thorough catalog of everything he’s ever worked on, including the Wikipedia articles on each of the 54 weekly Torah portions, which he either authored or contributed to.

Dauster sees his rabbinical studies as an exercise in improving his budgetary expertise.

“Torah study is a similar use of the mind,” Dauster said. “You are working with laws and text and trying to understand the text better. It also helped to get me a little more perspective on what we are doing that there are larger and more important overarching goals that one needs to keep in mind in one’s work.”  

Everyone, Republican or Democrat, who has worked with or around Dauster says the same thing: He knows the Senate rules better than anyone.

In 1993, he authored what is regarded as the “bible” of budgetary law: the Budget Process Law, Annotated, a nearly 900-page annotation of the collection of laws that dictate the congressional budget process. Why annotate just shy of a thousand pages of budgetary law?

“First, to have collected in one place all the things I’d need on the floor, and I’d want to argue with the Parliamentarian about what was the law on something,” he said in 2006. “So, it was useful to have it and not have it in a large suitcase. It’s better to have something small that you can carry with you at all times. Second, it helped me to understand the law better, and so it was a good, useful learning process for me.”

It makes sense that Democrats have hired Dauster as their chief litigator. He’s someone who knows the books so well that others read his work to better understand them. He’s been at the center of every major fight in Congress over the past three decades and managed to end up calmer and more at peace with the partisanship.

You name it, Dauster has done it. Harry Reid, former Senate majority leader

“Bill Dauster to me is — every baseball team needs him: a utility man,” Reid told HuffPost, using an analogy he’s used before to describe his former aide. “He can play any position that you need him to. He’s an expert with the budget. He’s an expert with foreign relations. He’s an expert with the environmental issues that face the country. You name it, Dauster has done it.”

Sometime after the Affordable Care Act passed, Dauster said his kids started calling him “Zen dad” for his characteristic calm. It’s quite the demeanor for a man who appears to be cramming for the biggest exam of his life every year. 

“He’s the nicest guy in the world. Sometimes you look at him and you wonder why he’s in the most cutthroat business in the world,” Manley said.

Democrats have a long list of policies they want to get passed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the fight for a $15 minimum wage still isn’t over, and Democrats are also eyeing a permanent child allowance, a paid leave program, free community college, a child care entitlement program, a massive infrastructure bill with green energy proposals and pro-union legislation, among other things. 

The fate of many of these proposals will come to a showdown between Dauster and the Senate’s parliamentarian, a woman named Elizabeth MacDonough who has held the post as the Senate’s rules and procedural expert since 2012. Losing the $15 minimum wage fight was the first blow, but Dauster is already studying for his next test.

The Radicalization Of An Institutionalist

In early March, MacDonough ruled that raising the minimum wage ran afoul of budget reconciliation rules. The budgetary impact, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated as being in the tens of billions of dollars, was merely incidental to what she saw as a fundamentally nonbudgetary policy, she advised. 

“The parliamentarian decided this in a one-sentence email,” Dauster said of the $15 minimum wage. “It ended up being a gut feeling on her part. That leaves you with something like what Potter Stewart said on pornography: I know it when I see it. I know it when I see it is not a standard you can legally work with in later cases.” 

Dauster knows where the naysayers are coming from. He used to think just like them.

In Dauster’s understanding, things in the Senate only escalate. When a pendulum swings in one direction, there’s a reaction in the other. There was a time, early in his career, when Dauster did not believe in escalating the rules of the Senate, especially when it came to budget reconciliation.

“I want to be upfront about this: I changed my view about this,” Dauster said.

William Hoagland, a former Republican Senate Budget Committee staffer who worked closely with Dauster over the years, pinpoints Dauster’s radicalization in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Republicans pushed tax cuts through the reconciliation process ― particularly, President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.  

“I always thought Bill was center-left,” Hoagland said. “I think what pushed him was ... when Republicans came in and used reconciliation to cut taxes. Up until that time, I didn’t think of Bill as being at the extremes of fiscal policy. I think he’s changed. Maybe we all change. I think in the autumn of his career, I think he has become a lot more liberal than I recall him being.” 

Demonstrators greet Sen. Bernie Sanders on his way to the full committee markup of GOP tax cut legislation in November 2017.
Demonstrators greet Sen. Bernie Sanders on his way to the full committee markup of GOP tax cut legislation in November 2017. The legislation was passed via the budget reconciliation process.

“His whole focus for quite some time has been how do we get around the Senate’s procedures. He and Bernie Sanders are a pair made in heaven in many ways,” Hoagland said.

Dauster remembers that as a “frustrating” time. He believed budget reconciliation was for the purposes of strictly reducing the deficit — all the Democratic staffers did at the time, recalls Marty Paone, who served on Democrats’ Senate floor staff from 1979 through 2008.

“We thought this is antithetical to what the whole process should be, but they were able to do it,” Paone said. “Bill and I thought they were abusing the system.”

In 1996, Republicans changed the scope of budget reconciliation to all fiscal policy. The 1996 welfare reform bill was done through reconciliation, which Dauster thought was “misguided and bad.” In 1997, Republicans passed a tax cut under the reconciliation process that Clinton signed. Republicans even fired the parliamentarian and installed their own in 2001 in order to pass their tax cuts.

Dauster saw the Bush tax cuts not only as a giveaway to the rich but as violations of Senate procedure. Two decades ago, he was arguing against an expanded use of reconciliation. 

His whole focus for quite some time has been how do we get around the Senate’s procedures. He and Bernie Sanders are a pair made in heaven in many ways. William Hoagland, former Republican Senate Budget Committee aide

It was also during Clinton’s presidency and then again during Barack Obama’s administration that Republicans ratcheted up their use of the filibuster to block Democrats’ policies and appointments. With each political blow, Dauster looked at the process less and less from a strictly procedural standpoint.

“He’s a multidimensional renaissance man,” Paone said. “You won’t get anyone better from a procedural standpoint but also, for instance, his attitude about filibuster reform has come full circle. And mine has too.”

“There are naturally reactions to changes to behavior,” Dauster said. “When the filibuster got to be used as frequently as it does, even old Senate hats like me, who looked at that thing for a while, we have to change the way we react to that too.”

Dauster remembers the day Reid decided he would have to get rid of the filibuster for judicial nominations and Cabinet appointments. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) had just been on the Senate floor overhearing Republicans gloat about blocking Obama’s nominations. He came into Reid’s office to tell him.

Reid, angry, decided then. They’d have to end the filibuster for nominations. Dauster was on board.

Interestingly, Sanders wasn’t one to call for abolishing the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to end debate on most legislation and move to a vote, on the presidential campaign trail. He always talked around it, saying he would rely on budget reconciliation for his biggest policy priorities.

These days, when Dauster brings up the issue of getting rid of the filibuster around the Senate, he doesn’t feel Sanders needs much convincing. Confronted with the limitations of the reconciliation process, Sanders, too, is having his renaissance.

Dauster (right) remembers the day Reid (center) decided he would have to get rid of the filibuster for judicial nominations a
Dauster (right) remembers the day Reid (center) decided he would have to get rid of the filibuster for judicial nominations and Cabinet appointments.

Figuring Out How To Win The Next Fight

Dauster sits between two men he’s observed closely in the Senate since he came to Washington. He works for Sanders, and he’s fighting for Biden’s agenda. He says there’s not much daylight between the two — or the Democratic caucus at large — anymore.

“It’s not just us in the Sanders shop,” Dauster said. “There are a lot of senators that had their hopes squelched over the last few years. There will be a lot of people trying to get into this second big reconciliation bill which may well be bigger than the one we just did.”

But there are distinct differences between how the two men operate in American politics. Biden has long cast himself as a man of the institution of the Senate, who reveres a methodical deliberative body that makes grand bargains. Sanders’ entire political message has been to inspire a political uprising so powerful that it could bend those very Senate deliberations.

Dauster says he thinks Biden, like himself, “has evolved in his view of the Senate as well,” recalling Biden’s response when the 10 Republican senators, led by Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mitt Romney (Utah), came up with a counterproposal to Biden’s American Rescue Plan that was one-third the size. “I’m willing to work with you, but not that small,” Dauster recounted Biden as saying.

There’s little education from the second kick of the mule. I will change my arguments. I will try and make the case that things are closer precedent. Bill Dauster

Meanwhile, “Sanders dreams big dreams,” Dauster said. “He wants to use the Senate. We can’t just wait in the old, slow, deliberate way of the Senate. Sen. Sanders, there are a lot of things he thinks need to be improved. In the words of the musical ‘Hamilton’: He’s not going to miss his shot.”

Dauster is still passionate about his defense of the $15 minimum wage. He believes it was a sound legal argument. And without much feedback from the parliamentarian, Dauster is left to believe that perhaps he tried to push the boundaries into new territory too quickly.

He’s changing his arguments. Perhaps arguing less that the parliamentarian can establish new precedent, but that what Democrats are arguing for is closer in line with already accepted law.

“There’s little education from the second kick of the mule,” Dauster said. “I will change my arguments. I will try and make the case that things are closer precedent.”

And one day, Dauster plans on asking the Senate’s parliamentarian directly: “What the hell” happened with the $15 minimum wage.

He will do it kindly, of course, and he’s waiting for the right time. Right now is not the right time.

Because, the way Dauster sees it, he’s a small-town lawyer in the Senate. His caseload is the entirety of the Democratic agenda and he only goes up against the one judge in town: the Senate’s parliamentarian.

It’s imperative that he keeps the peace.