WASHINGTON — From the moment President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are sworn in at noon on Wednesday, they will face multiple and intertwined crises. A raging pandemic that has now killed more than 400,000 Americans. A deeply unequal economic crash that has claimed millions of jobs while enriching the very wealthy. Fast action to meet these crises with the urgency they deserve is at the top of the Biden-Harris administration’s to-do list, including a proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan.
But there is another, deeper crisis, one decades in the making, that the Biden administration and the Democratic-controlled House and Senate intend to confront in the coming days — namely, the rickety state of American democracy.
The January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol brought into hideous relief the perilous condition of the oldest democracy in the world. But the mob assault on the Capitol was a capstone, the latest in a long line of symptoms that the American system of government was flatlining. Those other symptoms include, but are by no means limited to, racially motivated voter suppression, politically driven gerrymandering, the influence of the super-wealthy and corporations in elections, the flow of untraceable dark money, and the spread of viral disinformation such that Americans can’t even agree on basic facts anymore.
To meet this crisis, House and Senate Democrats have introduced a pair of companion bills, both titled the For the People Act, a mega-bill filled with reforms and repairs that would begin the long-overdue work of restoring American democracy. House Democrats first introduced and passed H.R. 1 in 2019, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the bill from passage. Now, with Democrats in control of Congress, H.R. 1 and S. 1, the Senate companion bill, are a top priority for the Democratic Congress and President Biden.
Rolling Stone spoke with one of the architects of H.R. 1, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), about what’s in the new version of the bill, how the late Congressman John Lewis shaped H.R. 1’s sweeping set of voting-rights reforms, and the bill’s prospects for passage in Congress.
Can you give a breakdown of what’s in HR 1?
HR 1 pulls together all these different core elements of reform that we know the public is anxious to see, particularly at a moment when there’s clear evidence that our democracy is in a fragile state and needs its foundation shored up.
There’s a whole set of reforms in the voting rights basket where we try to make it possible for people to get to the ballot box without having to run an obstacle course every two years — things that make it convenient for a person to cast their vote in America. The entirety of the voting section is basically the Voter Empowerment Act, which was John Lewis’ signature legislation. John Lewis is really a central figure to this bill. Support for this bill and passage of it is central to preserving and carrying forward John Lewis’ legacy.
There’s a set of reforms about political gerrymandering and trying to change that so we don’t have partisan gerrymandering but instead a process that’s more objective in establishing congressional district lines. We’ve heard for years from people that they view this as a matter of fundamental respect. And then based on all the attacks we’ve seen on election infrastructure from foreign actors, we want to protect those systems so they’re more resilient.
We know that people have become disillusioned about ethics and accountability in Washington. We have provisions to strengthen ethics rules and transparency rules, so that people know when their elected officials go to Washington, they’re going to act in the people’s interest, not their own self interest. That means addressing the undue influences that big money has in our politics and in the way we govern, including disclosure requirements so we know where dark money is coming from, and reforming the Federal Election Commission so it can actually do its job and blow the whistle when people break the rules in the campaign finance space.
It also means setting up a small-donor matching system of public financing to make it possible to run for office without having to know people with a lot of money. That way, when they get to Washington, they continue to represent the voters’ interest, not get hijacked back by the inside crowd.
What do you say to someone who says, “Why are we talking about H.R. 1 right now when so many other crises need addressing — the pandemic, the economic downturn?”
Obviously we respect the priority of pandemic relief and dealing with the economic crisis that families are facing across the country. The Congress is firmly committed to partnering with the incoming administration to address those crises, no question. But I think at the same time, people have anxiety about the strength of the democracy at this point. And particularly coming off this attack on the Capitol, the citadel of liberty and democracy in our country, people want to see us taking action to strengthen the democracy. I think that is a very natural additional thing we can do in this moment to give people confidence and hope.
The other thing I’ll mention is that we know from looking at polls and talking to our constituents that even as pandemic relief rolls out to the country, there are many who worry that insiders and special interests will find a way to grab more of those than they deserve. And so this idea that we put the public interest first is really important and that insiders aren’t pulling the strings, [that] the effort to get money into the hands of struggling families across the country is actually happening and not getting impeded by a special interest agenda.
The last thing is, we know this pandemic and the economic crisis has had a disproportionate impact on certain communities across the country. Those tend to be the same communities that don’t have as much political power. A lot of the reforms contained in H.R. 1 are designed to make sure everybody around the country has a strong voice in political engagement, so that policy gets made out of respect for those voices and not some small privileged class.
H.R. 1 was introduced in 2019 as the first big piece of policy put forward by the then-new Democratic majority. Needless to say, a lot’s happened to our democracy in the two years since then. How has the bill changed since then?
All the key components, the load-bearing walls, are still there. They’re all reforms we need as much today as we did two years ago. Some of the challenges we saw around voting in the pandemic have invited us to put some additional provisions in. You want to make sure all of these different modalities of voting are going to be available to people. We also made some additional changes in response to what came out of the 2016 and 2018 election cycles in terms of foreign interference.
[But] for the most part, [the bill] is today what it was two years ago in its critical components. Everything that made it a priority two years ago continues to make it a priority today and a place where I think people can channel some hope and confidence that we can shore up our democracy.
Have you spoken with members of the Biden-Harris transition team or incoming administration officials about whether this is a priority?
We have. That’s been going on for a number of months.
I think they recognize that, coming off of this election and also recent events, that Americans need to have their faith in the kind of basic tenets of our democracy restored after all that we’ve been going through. We know that President Biden wants to try to bring the country together and heal some of these divisions, and one way to do that is to revisit and go back to basic principles of our democracy — the right to vote, the notion that public officials will act in public interest, not special interest, the idea that government should be dependent, as James Madison said, on the people alone, not overly dependent on big money and special interests.
All of this goes back to first principles in terms of how our democracy functions and how our republic was founded. If people don’t have confidence that their vote is what makes the difference about policy in this country and in our democracy, then that cynicism is corrosive to our democracy. This bill is restorative. We’re not going to tear this system down and destroy it; we’re going to cleanse it and rebuild it. I think the Biden team understands that in this moment.
What are the odds the bill passes through the House and Senate?
In the House, it needs a simple majority. In the Senate, under the current rules, it would need 60 votes to pass. I do think what you’re gonna see increasingly is a sense on the part of many out there in the public, and I think many as well inside the Senate chamber, that reform of this kind is about ensuring that there is majority rule in America.
Because this bill is about voting rights and these other basic principles, the idea of holding it up based on a supermajority vote requirement in the Senate is kind of discordant. It doesn’t seem to make sense. [That] the basic rules of how our democracy operates and the principle of majority rule in the country would be somehow frustrated by a supermajority requirement is something that needs some attention. I think you will probably see increasing pressure around reforming the filibuster in this moment, and particularly when it comes to the basic rules of how our democracy operates.
That’s a task for Senator Schumer and his caucus to take on on the Senate side.
Do you think the fate of H.R. 1 and S. 1 will be a catalyst for that conversation?
I think so. Those leading the charge on S. 1, like Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who is a prime sponsor of S. 1 on the Senate side, have been working on the issue of filibuster reform for a number of years.
What do you mean when you talk about the problem of “minority rule,” and how does H.R. 1 address that problem?
One way to conceive of minority rule is if you can keep American citizens out of the town square, you can artificially distort how our politics operate and how public policy gets made. What’s happened over the last few years — and I lay a lot of this at the feet of Mitch McConnell — is there has been this power structure created that uses voter suppression to keep people out, uses big money to distort this system and allow for bad information to be spread, and the result is when it comes time to have elections and then to make public policy, you’re left with a group that doesn’t represent the broad interests of the American public. That’s what minority rule looks like.
Our system is based on the idea of majority rule — that if everybody’s voice is counted, you’ll land in a place where you won’t necessarily agree on everything, but you’ll have respect for the process. A lot of the frustration out there is because people see whether it’s partisan gerrymandering being used, big money being used, the will of the majority in America is repeatedly being frustrated and undermined, their voice isn’t being heard at all.
And if you have minority rule, there’s less accountability to the broader public, and it makes it easier for extreme elements to take hold. They get more oxygen than they deserve because they’re not being held accountable to a broader audience.
The way you restore accountability broadly and begin to push some of these extreme elements to the margins of the town square is by restoring enough faith that everybody else rushes back in and isn’t being artificially kept out.
We’re coming off an election where frighteningly large numbers of Americans don’t believe the result was free and fair. Some of those people attacked the U.S. Capitol and claimed they wanted to arrest or kill lawmakers in the name of a stolen election. How do you bring those people back into the town square you talk about, one where facts, science, and data underpin the conversation?
A lot of the anger in this country is people looking at government and asking the basic question: Are you on our side? Are you fighting for me? And if they feel like the system is rigged in all kinds of ways, when it comes to voting, when it comes to money, when it comes to transparency, if they feel like it’s rigged and some inside agenda is being advanced and the average person isn’t being respected, then they get angry, they get frustrated, and they get cynical.
H.R. 1 and S. 1 are simply an effort to make the system work for Americans, so they start to believe in it again. You know what the polls say about what people think of Congress and Washington and the political system; they’re so angry about it. And I don’t blame people for being disillusioned and cynical because they have seen the democracy get hijacked by a lot of these special interests and money.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but if you can take these steps to show to people, “Hey, you’re in charge of your democracy, it doesn’t belong to PACs or Super PACs, it doesn’t belong to the partisan map-drawer or the voter suppressors, it’s yours, you can have confidence in it,” then over time people will begin to feel like this is their democracy. That’s what this legislation was designed to do. It’s not too late to bring this set of reforms to fix what’s broken and restore people’s faith and confidence in their democracy.