WASHINGTON — Picture the 2020 elections but with a few, shall we say, tweaks to how politics work in this country.
Changes like: Anyone can easily register to vote online or on Election Day, which, by the way, is now a federal holiday. Want to cast your ballot early? Go for it — even if you live in a deep-red state — beginning two weeks before the election. Not to mention all early-voting sites are open four hours a day and are located near a bus stop or a subway station. Oh, and there’s more incentive than ever to vote in those congressional elections because an independent commission wrestled the redistricting process out of the hands of partisan lawmakers, ripped up your state’s old gerrymandered map and drew a new, saner one creating more competitive races.
As for the candidates, they go all-in to court $20- and $50-a-head donors because they’ll get matching public funds for relying on small-dollar contributions. Child care, rent and health insurance can now be paid for with campaign funds, so that a candidate who isn’t wealthy or doesn’t have ready access to rich people can run for office without going broke. A new law, the DISCLOSE Act, will finally reveal who’s behind those ominous dark-money-funded attack ads from a faceless group run out of a P.O. box with a bullshit name like Americans for an Awesome America.
This is obviously not the reality in which Americans currently live. But it is the world envisioned in H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act, the first bill put forward by House Democrats after retaking the majority and returning Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to the speakership.
On Friday morning, a group of Democrats, led by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), Pelosi as well as other senior members, unveiled new details about what’s included in the For the People Act. It’s arguably the most ambitious piece legislation put forward by the Democratic Party in the modern era when it comes to restoring the health of American democracy.
“We heard loud and clear from the American people that they feel left out and locked out too often from their own democracy,” Sarbanes said at a press conference on Friday. Democratic candidates for office ran on a pledge to curb the flow of big money and the influence of special interests, and H.R. 1, Sarbanes continued, “is the delivering on that promise back to the American people and telling them, in return for you giving us the gavel, we are going to do everything we can, everything single day, to give you your democracy back.”
With a Republican-controlled Senate and President Trump in the White House, the For the People Act stands little chance of going anywhere beyond the House of Representatives. But it’s important in several ways. It announces that the health of our democracy is first and foremost on the minds of Speaker Pelosi and her new majority. And it puts down, in one place, a laundry list of ideas and possible reforms that can be individually enacted or adopted at the state level, giving Democrats a starting point for tackling issues — gerrymandering, voting rights and more — that voters increasingly see as vital to the future of this country
H.R. 1, as laid out in a 22-page blueprint document, is divided into three parts: voting, money in politics and ethics.
In addition to the same-day and automatic voter registration and expanded early voting, H.R. 1 says Congress should restore the landmark Voting Rights Act, which was greatly weakened by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down a key provision of the law aimed at preventing voter discrimination in counties with a history of doing so. Bowing to pressure by progressive activists, the bill also pays lip service to the cause District of Columbia statehood movement, declaring that D.C. citizens “deserve full congressional voting rights and self-government, which only statehood can provide.”
Since the Citizens United decision, federal elections have become the sandbox of the wealthy and powerful, on the left and right. Just eleven people have pumped more than $1 billion into super PACs since their creation in 2010. Untold hundreds of millions more have gone into shadowy nonprofit groups (see: the aforementioned Americans for an Awesome America), with the exact total unknown because, well, they’re dark-money groups.
H.R. 1 takes on this era of big-donor dominance by cracking down on coordination between super PACs and campaigns, forcing super PACs and dark-money groups who run political ads to reveal donors who give more than $10,000, and calling for an end to the practice of laundering big donations between different non-profit groups to shield the true source of the funds.
The bill also calls for greater efforts at the federal level to prevent cyberattacks and other forms of election hacking. Those proposals would require the president to come up with a national strategy for protecting U.S. elections (something President Trump has not done) and mandate the Department of Homeland Security assess any threats 180 days before an election and brief states on its findings.
The bill would also take a stab at rebooting the nation’s dysfunctional elections watchdog, the Federal Election Commission. The FEC’s current composition — a six-person agency with three Democratic and three Republican appointees — has resulted in partisan stasis on a whole host of key issues, and H.R. 1 proposes giving it five members not unlike the Federal Communications Commission, a move that could break the gridlock.
And on the ethics front, H.R. 1 would ban members of Congress from using taxpayer funds to settle employment discrimination claims, beef up conflict of interest protections for the president and vice president (a subject made all-too-relevant by Trump’s refusal to divest in any serious way from his business) and gum up the revolving door taking former government staffers into the private sector after they leave public service. In a direct jab at Trump, it would require sitting presidents and vice presidents as well as candidates for those offices to release their tax returns. And, in what would be a massive step forward, H.R. 1 also calls for the creation of a new Supreme Court code of ethics, a long-overdue idea that would replace the high court’s laughable self-policing policy right now.
Again, there’s little chance H.R. 1 becomes law. But faced with the most ethically challenged president since Richard Nixon, Pelosi and the Democrats have signaled that rolling back decades of anti-democratic policies and resuscitating our ailing electoral system is at the top of their to-do list.
Putting out a bill is the easy part. Will Democrats now fight to make H.R. 1’s vision a reality?