A Day in the Sun for HR 1 (February 15)

Update 331 — A Day in the Sun for HR 1;
House Admin Hearing Tees Up Feb. 26 Markup

Yesterday, the House Administration Committee held the last of the Committee hearings on H.R. 1, the For the People Act.  The bill is a sweeping democracy reform package that aims to restore voting rights protections, fight special interest money in politics, and ensure lawmakers are held to ethical standards.  Championed by Democracy Reform Task Force Chair Rep. Sarbanes, the bill already has 227 cosponsors, all Democrats.

Next Tuesday, we will take a look at the singular and complex development this week in state and local public finance, with national implications: Amazon’s decision to back out of its HQ2 commitment in Queens.  

Meanwhile, good Presidents’ Weekend, all…

Dana

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H.R. 1 heads for markup in the House Administration Committee on February 26. There have been three hearings on H.R. 1:

  • House Judiciary Committee, January 29, 2019, “H.R. 1 For the People Act”
  • House Committee on Oversight and Government Affairs, February 6, 2019, “H.R. 1 Strengthening Ethics Rules for the Executive Branch”
  • House Administration Committee, February 14, 2019, “For the People: Our American Democracy”

The first two hearings provided a platform for Democratic themes, echoing the bill’s sweeping reforms in Voting Rights, Campaign Finance, and Ethics. GOP attempts at poking holes and spouting criticisms generally sounded flat, as some Republicans look ahead to reelection in 2020. More on the issues and themes during yesterday’s House Administration Committee hearing below.

Voting Rights / Election Security

Although 2018 saw the highest voter turnout since 1914, less than half of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot. As witnesses in yesterday’s hearing stressed, our democracy is stronger when more people participate.

Chiraag Bains, Director of Legal Strategies for Demos, and Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, noted key reforms in H.R. 1 that would drive higher turnout and streamline registration. These reforms included automatic voter registration, which could add as many as 50 million voters to the rolls, as well as same-day and online registration. Both also called for efforts to repair the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the 2013 landmark Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder.  The Shelby decision gutted pre-clearance review of proposed voting procedure changes in states with a history of discrimination, leading to a marked increase in voter suppression tactics in the years since.

Witnesses on the second panel highlighted the need for increased accessibility to the polls. High school student Alejandro Rangel-Lopez spoke of his difficulties in Dodge City, where in 2018, there was one polling location for nearly 13,000 voters and it was not accessible by public transportation. Worse yet, the county clerk provided the incorrect address prior to Election Day.

Democratic questioning focused largely on these areas of registration and voter access that Titles I and II of H.R. 1 seek to address. As in past hearings, Republican criticism centered on the question of federal overreach.  The lone Republican witness on the first panel, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, sung the praises of policies in H.R. 1, such as online voter registration and independent redistricting commissions, but argued that implementation is best left to the states. Unfortunately, other states have not been nearly as progressive as Washington when left to their own devices — as seen in Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina in 2018, to name a few. When it comes to federal elections, all states should have access to the type of reforms put in place by Washington and other states with progressive election laws.

Campaign Finance Reform

A NBC/WSJ poll prior to the 2018 midterms found that 77 percent of registered voters said that reducing the influence of special interest money in Washington is the single most important, or a very important issue, in deciding who to support in Congressional elections.

During the hearing, Ms.Weiser remarked on the success of small-donor matching in New York City and in presidential elections from 1976 to 2008. Studies of the 2009 and 2013 New York City elections found that participating candidates received more than 60 percent of their funds from small donors and the public match.

Critics of the small-donor matching provision in H.R. 1, such as House Administration Ranking Member Rep. Davis, called the six-to-one match for small donations up to $200 an “egregious provision” tantamount to a taxpayer subsidy that would put more money into politics. His argument doesn’t hold water for two key reasons:

  • The purpose of small-donor matching is to amplify small donations from citizens to make them better able to compete with special interest money.  Rather than adding money in politics, the donor matching program would promote citizen-funded elections that increase the diversity of viewpoints influencing officeholders.
  • The final text of H.R. 1 may include a pay-for “Democracy Fund” which would fund the campaign finance piece of the bill with either a series of fees on lobbyists and super PACs and/or fees levied on corporate “bad actors.” If this funding provision ends up in the final bill text, Rep. Davis’ line-of-attack on the small donor matching provision is null and void.

Another aspect of campaign finance reform, disclosure of “dark money,” was featured during the second panel. House Administration Chair Lofgren said that the “voices of the wealthy and powerful [have become] so loud that they can drown out the voices of ordinary people.” A witness described how a Texas billionaire CEO in Wisconsin gave $750,000 to a dark money group in exchange for legislation that blocked lead poisoning lawsuits against his company. H.R. 1 would codify the DISCLOSE Act which would, among other things, compel politically-active “dark money” non-profits to disclose donors who contribute over $10,000.

Ethics

Most of the ethics provisions in the bill do not fall under jurisdiction of the House Administration Committee, so this section of H.R. 1 was not covered in this hearing. In past hearings, the ethics section of the bill was lauded as vital reform that would codify high ethics standards for all three branches of government. While some across the aisle deemed the ethics section too far-reaching, the majority of witnesses at the House Judiciary and Oversight Committee hearings praised the ethics reform section as a means to re-affirm public service and the commitment of elected officials to their constituents.

Looking Ahead

H.R. 1’s position as the first bill in a Democrat-led House signals the importance of anti-corruption to the Democratic positive agenda. As the committee hearing portion of H.R. 1’s journey to the House floor takes its next step, it is clear that democracy reform is indeed and already a rising tide to lift all progressive boats.

After markup in the House Administration Committee and inevitable passage on the House floor given the majority, the bill will be taken up by the Senate Democratic caucus. As yesterday’s yesterday’s hearing shows, though showedRepublicans have been steadfast in their opposition to the bill as a whole, many provisions, particularly in election security, that enjoy bipartisan support

The Senate companion bill to H.R. 1 will be introduced in the coming weeks by Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley. The bill will likely be passed over on the schedule by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but even if it fails to make it to the Senate floor in the 116th Congress, the bill in its final form will be important as a starting point of reference when the Senate majority (hopefully) flips, as it is bound to, eventually.

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