House Democrats Are United in Passing Massive Electoral Reform Bill

I generally take a look at all the roll calls of all the votes that take place in the House and Senate because it gives me insight into how politicians strategize on forming their ideological profiles. There are usually a few dissenters that cross the aisle for one reason or another, and I like trying to divine their reasoning. The least interesting votes are the ones where there are no dissenters at all, and we had one of those today in the roll call on H.R.1, the House bill better known as the For the People Act.

As you can see, the bill passed easily in a total party line vote. Cast as “a far-reaching elections and ethics bill,” the For the People Act is the Democrats’ effort to overhaul election law and do their part to “drain the swamp.” It’s a gigantic piece of legislation with many moving parts.

Some of the highlights include making Election Day a federal holiday, a requirement that “dark money” political action organizations disclose the identities of their large donors, a requirement that presidential candidates disclose ten years of their tax returns, a regulation allowing shareholders to have more say in how corporate political donations are spent, having independent state commissions draw federal district lines rather than state legislatures, the establishment of an automatic voter registration system, a prohibition on states disenfranchising felons who have completed their sentences, new rules regulating how voter-roll purges can be done and how voter identification laws can be crafted, and even a ban on most first-class air travel for federal officeholders.

The For the People Act is basically a signifier bill. It won’t be taken up in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explained he wouldn’t hold a vote on it “because I get to decide what we vote on.” That’s not much of explanation, but one thing that bothers McConnell is the idea that federal workers might use their Election Day holiday to work on behalf of the Democrats.

In January, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell railed against making Election Day a holiday, arguing that it would be a giveaway to Democrats.

“This is the Democrat plan to restore democracy? A brand new week of paid vacation for every federal employee who would like to hover around while you cast your ballot?” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Just what America needs, another paid holiday and a bunch of government workers being paid to go out and work for, I assume…our colleagues on the other side, on their campaigns.”

Although the For the People Act won’t become a law in this Congress or under this president, it shows what might happen in 2021 if the Democrats keep their hold on the House and take over control of the Senate and Oval Office.

There were some interesting divisions I found after looking a little deeper. There was one amendment to the bill that passed. Introduced by Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, it passed narrowly 219-215, with 17 Democrats crossing the aisle to vote with a united bloc of Republicans. Raskin’s amendment is described as preventing “corporate expenditures for campaign purposes unless the corporation has established a process for determining the political will of its shareholders.” There actually wasn’t much debate on the amendment before the vote. The discussion was really about five minutes of back and forth between Rep. Raskin and Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois who serves as the Republicans’ ranking member of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal elections. The whole exchange was captured in the congressional record and I’ve reproduced it below.

The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Maryland.

Mr. RASKIN. Mr. Chair, I yield myself such time as I may consume, and I rise to offer this amendment to H.R. 1.

For decades, the law prevented business corporations from engaging in campaign spending. But the Supreme Court destroyed that prohibition with its watershed decision in 2010, in the Citizens United case, which, for the first time, defined for-profit business corporations as political membership associations and, thereby, unleashed billions of dollars in corporate treasury money into the political system.

Since then, corporations have taken advantage of this newfound constitutional identity and political freedom byinvesting hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions, in campaign expenditures and the torrent of “dark money” now coursing through the political system. But who are these corporations speaking for?

Well, according to the court, they are speaking for the shareholders. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy took the position that corporate political campaigning is on behalf of the shareholders, an association of individuals who have taken on the corporate form.

But, in reality, we know that CEOs engage in political spending without the knowledge, much less the consent of the shareholders whose First Amendment rights are allegedly being exercised.

Anyone who has a retirement fund with money invested in corporate equities will know that they have never been asked whether they want a portion of their retirement money invested in Republican or Democratic or other campaigns. The CEOs just do it without their participation.

What can be done to stop shareholders’ money from being spent on campaigns without their knowledge or consent?

Most Americans want a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and restore the definition of corporations as economic entities barred from politics. But there is something that we can do right now, short of that, simply by enforcing Citizens United on its own terms.

Justice Kennedy said the main check against abuse of this new right would be exercised by the “shareholders through the procedures of corporate democracy.”

Justice Kennedy assumed a world of comprehensive and immediate disclosure. He wrote: “Shareholder objections raised through the procedures of corporate democracy can be more effective today because modern technology makes disclosures rapid and informative. With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable . . . citizens can see whether elected officials are in the pocket of so-called moneyed interests.”

But the current system provides nothing like that kind of transparency and accountability. This amendment, the Shareholders United Act of 2019, will begin to change the secrecy, darkness, and oligarchical implications of the current system.

It would require publicly-traded corporations to get shareholder buy-in on the front end before their money is channeled into political campaigns. Companies would have to develop a process to assess shareholder preferences for political spending, and make any such spending within a year of assessing the majority’s preferences.

Moreover, the amendment recognizes that some shareholders are institutional investors, like pension funds, States, and cities, mutual funds, universities or charities, which are categorically forbidden from expressing partisan political preferences.

If this type of investor holds a majority of corporate shares, the corporation would not be able to make expenditures from the general treasury because the CEO, at that point, would paradoxically be speaking for institutionalshareholders that may not themselves speak in politics.

Citizens are begging for this kind of commonsense regulation and promotion of corporate democracy. People invest in the stock market to save for retirement, or to send their kids to college, not to support their favorite political candidates, much less their most disfavored ones.

I know that I would be mad as hell to learn that my retirement money was being spent, being given away to Donald Trump and the RNC; just as I assume my GOP friends don’t want their pension dollars going to the DNC or to help Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential campaign.

People who invest in the stock market should not be used as the pawns for the political designs of CEOs. I urgemy colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this commonsense amendment called for by Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Citizens United.

I reserve the balance of my time.

Mr. RODNEY DAVIS of Illinois. Mr. Chairman, I claim time in opposition to the amendment.

The Acting CHAIR. The gentleman is recognized for 5 minutes.

Mr. RODNEY DAVIS of Illinois. Mr. Chairman, again, as I mentioned earlier, I would have liked to have seen these amendments offered during our House Administration markup as my good friend from Maryland is also a member of the House Administration Committee.

There was some discussion on issues like this and I was under the impression, during that markup process, that provisions like my opponent put into this amendment were already part of the bill.

But let me add, this amendment would turn businesses and corporations into partisan political entities and shar holder meetings and votes into political conventions.

It would require corporations to poll their shareholders on whether the corporation’s political spending should be made in support of, in opposition to Republican, Democratic, Independent, or other political party candidates and political committees.

Business decisions drive corporations’ political spending. This would inject partisan political considerations into corporate political spending.

And let me remind the American people, corporations are banned by law currently to be able to give directly to candidates or to organizations that will directly support or oppose candidates during an election cycle. This is going to further polarize our political environment.

This amendment also relies on unconstitutionally vague and intent-based standards for what corporate spending is covered by the shareholder preference assessment requirement. It is going to encourage the current practice of activists taking hold of proxy advisory firms to socially engineer public policies through proxy shareholder votes. There is no transparency to proxy advisory firms.

I am opposed to this amendment because it is vague and impractical, and would, again, infringe upon free speech. It is not clear what speech is covered under this amendment and that is, perhaps, the worst part.

The practical effect of this amendment would be that the companies would not have shareholder elections under this new standard. Many would probably stop paying dues to trade associations because the language might be construed to cover that. That would be a bomb on many of the largest and most important trade groups. No sim lar requirement for other organizations as part of this bill, of course.

Mr. Chair, I reserve the balance of my time.

Mr. RASKIN. Mr. Chair, I thank the gentleman for those thoughtful comments. The ranking member of the House Administration Committee contends that we talked about this in the House Administration Committee which, indeed, we did, and it was precisely that discussion which led to the formation of the amendment.

I am afraid there he is just protesting against the character of the legislative process. We have a discussion; we learn things; we develop new amendments. And for a moment there it sounded like he wanted to vote for it, but then he turns to say that the problem with this amendment is that it would politicize the corporation, which is quite an astounding argument to make against it, when the entire purpose of amendment is to prevent corporations from engaging in political expenditures and dark-money spending without the consent and the knowledge of the shareholders.

If you object to corporations being engaged in partisan political activity, then you should support this amendment, because it is precisely this amendment that will prevent it from happening if the shareholders don’t want it to. Mr. Chair, I yield back the balance of my time.

 

Here are the 17 Democrats who voted against Raskin’s amendment requiring “corporations to get shareholder buy-in…by [developing] a process to assess shareholders preference for political spending.”

If you are not a political geek like me, that roll call might not interest you. But I find it fascinating and potentially quite revealing. I see a bunch of freshmen on the list, including African-American gun control advocate Lucy McBath of Georgia and LGBT Native American Sharice Davids of Kansas. I also see Josh Gottheimer of northern New Jersey, who is closely aligned with Wall Street, as well as a few of the better-known Blue Dogs like Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Kurt Schrader of Oregon. I’d like to know how each one of these people rationalizes their vote on Raskin’s amendment. None of them appear to have spoken against it on the floor, and all of them eventually voted for the language because it was included in the bill that they approved.

I’m pretty sure their silence means that the intended audience for their vote wasn’t the American people but the corporate interests they were protecting. If we’re cleaning the swamp, we might want to get some answers from these folks.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com