First Issue for Democrats Next Year: Election and Ethics Reform

Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, summed up the issues the Democratic majority in the House will tackle with their first bill.

We have a system of campaign finance that takes us back to the Gilded Age and the robber baron era, a voting system that takes us back to the poll tax and voter suppression era and a redistricting system that allows representatives to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives…The very health of our democracy is at stake in this fight to repair our political system for all Americans.

Today Democrats confirmed that their first act in January will be to take up a bill that addresses those concerns. Here are the particulars:

The proposed voting rights reforms include reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, with constitutional language to restore federal preclearance (stripped by the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision) for changes to voting laws in some jurisdictions. The bill would also institute automatic voter registration across the country and provide funding and expanded oversight power to the Election Assistance Commission. And the measure would require that nonpartisan commissions redraw congressional district maps.

Ethics reforms in the proposed bill would cover the executive and legislative branches. The measure would include extending the cooling-off period before a government official may become a lobbyist, expanding conflict-of-interest laws to cover the president and vice president, give more compliance and oversight power to the executive branch’s Office of Government Ethics and bar lawmakers from sitting on corporate boards.

The planned legislation would create a public financing system for congressional elections and provide matching funds for small-dollar donations raised by participating candidates…Additional reforms would include increasing disclosure for dark money and digital advertising, strengthening laws prohibiting coordination between candidates and super PACs and barring lobbyists from bundling campaign contributions.

An article about this legislation at NPR incorrectly states that these measures would overturn Citizens United, which has conservatives crying that the whole thing is an attack on free speech. But public financing and increased disclosure do not pre-empt anything that the Supreme Court legalized. Most people agree that would require a constitutional amendment.

There are also those making the argument that, since a bill like this will never pass the Senate or be signed by Trump, it is merely a political tactic for 2020. Here’s what Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the bill’s author, said about that:

Give us the gavel in the Senate in 2020 and we’ll pass it in the Senate…Give us a pen in the Oval Office and we’ll sign those kinds of reforms into law.

The reality is that the only people who will be opposed to legislation like this are those who benefit politically from voter suppression and gerrymandering, as well as those who make money from the corruption of our political system. In other words, Republicans. There is no doubt that they will do anything they can to obstruct election and ethics reform, so waiting for them to sign on means it will never happen.

On the other hand, when it comes to regular voters, this kind of legislation will garner overwhelming support. Democrats are right to suggest that the only way these things will happen is if voters give them a Democratic president and senate majority.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .