Update 529: H.R. 1/S.1 Tied Up in Cmte.
After 9-9 Vote, Whither Political Reform?
The comprehensive political reform bill known as the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) passed the House in March 2019 and again in March 2021. With a new President and a narrowly Democratic Congress, the bill has a chance to become law. Yesterday, the Senate Rules Committee chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar held a nine-hour markup of S. 1.
The Rules Committee vote deadlocked at 9-9. Now, the bill will move to the Senate floor where it will face an uphill battle only likely to be alleviated by process reform, specifically of the filibuster. Below we explore the takeaways from yesterday’s markup, debunk GOP-driven misconceptions, and analyze the legislative challenges ahead.
The markup of S. 1 in the Senate Rules Committee afforded Senators their first chance to propose amendments to the landmark democracy reform bill, with a majority vote required to pass amendments. The markup comes after the passage of a new restrictive voting law in Florida and another moving quickly through the state legislature in Texas. Legislatures in 47 states have introduced 361 bills restricting ballot access. Sen. Schumer and Sen. McConnell both attended the hearing and delivered opening statements, signifying how important the For the People Act is to both sides.
As S. 1 re-enters the political spotlight, Democrats face tough choices. If the markup’s mostly party-line amendment votes are any guide, it’s unlikely S. 1 will get bipartisan support and may only see passage in conjunction with Senate procedural (i.e. filibuster) reform. The stage is set for a Democratic push to align S. 1’s advancement to the Senate floor with efforts to reform Senate procedure.
Rules Committee Takeaways and Tea Leaves
Yesterday’s markup saw few surprises and only minor changes to the bill, with the key components on voting rights, campaign finance, and ethics reform remaining intact. Given the committee’s even partisan split, most amendments were not agreed to, and the bill may require a discharge petition to move to the Senate floor.
Chair Amy Klobuchar’s manager’s amendment includes a series of updates to the text reflecting concerns raised by state and local election administrators of both parties. The amendment loosens some of the bill’s requirements for early voting, vote-by-mail, ballot drop boxes, and online ballot tracking, and extends the deadline for implementing standards regarding automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and paper trails for voting machines. The vote on the manager’s amendment was 9-9 and was therefore not adopted. Democrats now hope to make those changes on the Senate floor.
Senate Republicans used the hearing to make exaggerated and outright false claims about the bill. Republican amendments offered would have struck down key provisions of the bill, including the small donor matching system, early voting requirements, and reform of the Federal Election Commission. Each earned all nine Republican votes and failed to pass. But Sen. Cruz admitted that even if the GOP amendments were adopted, he would still likely vote no in the end, his GOP colleagues the same.
Rules Committee Democrats showed unity as well. The lack of defections or intra-party squabbling indicates that the caucus remains dedicated to the core issues of the bill, and its advocates will seek to pass it in a single package as originally designed.
There are several points of dispute regarding the For the People Act. On the Democratic side, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are reportedly pushing a shift in focus to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4), a voting rights-only bill they believe is more likely to get to President Biden’s desk. But arguments to pivot from or break up S. 1 are unconvincing as all titles of the bill enjoy 2:1 popular support.
National polling of S. 1 indicates broad support for all major provisions of the bill, and 49 Democratic Senators currently co-sponsor the legislation. Sen. Joe Manchin, the remaining holdout, has concerns of state-level implementation and a lack of bipartisanship but has voiced support for multiple aspects of S. 1. The most significant obstacle to both bills is the filibuster, so there is no particular need to sacrifice S. 1 as Democrats’ main priority.
Republicans’ messaging strategy against S. 1 centers around misconceptions and misinformation to diminish public support for the bill. Below are arguments made by Republicans opposing the For the People Act and rejoinders:
- Constitutionality: S. 1 is a Democratic power grab and an unconstitutional federal takeover of elections.
- Rejoinder: Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1 of the Constitution gives Congress power to regulate federal elections. In recent memory, Congress exercised this power when it was necessary to ensure our elections are accessible and inclusive, as when passing the National Voter Registration Act (1993) and parts of the Help America Vote Act (2002). The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld this power.
- Taxpayer Misnomer: Campaign finance provisions, specifically the small donor matching program, would force taxpayers to fund federal election campaigns and advertisements regardless of their personal support.
- Rejoinder: The small donor matching program is not funded by American taxpayers. It is financed through SEC fines and penalties collected from corporate crime. The matching program itself is inexpensive, self-funded, and would counteract the influence of big money in politics. Small donor matching would allow members of Congress to spend less time fundraising and more time advocating for constituents, as well as improve the political power of average-income Americans.
- Unfamiliar Donors: The matching program would allow out-of-state donors to dominate elections, and candidates themselves may not want to receive those funds.
- Rejoinder: Barring the American people from expressing their political speech in the form of campaign contributions — to whomever they please — would violate the First Amendment. The small donor matching program operates on an opt-in basis by the candidates, with no campaigns being forced to participate.
- FEC Demise: S. 1 would give Democrats control over the Federal Election Commission and politicize the FEC by reducing its number of commissioners from six to five.
- Rejoinder: The FEC has been unable to carry out its most basic functions because of perpetual gridlock. S. 1 changes the number of commissioners, replacing a gridlocked 3-3 board with two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent with no ties to any political party for at least five years. With dark money exceeding $1 billion in the 2020 election cycle, S. 1 provides critical reform to an agency currently paralyzed by partisan gridlock.
Legislative Challenges Ahead
Majority Leader Schumer vowed again to bring S.1 to the floor by August, whether or not they have 60 votes to break a filibuster. Schumer told his colleagues that “failure is not an option” during a private caucus meeting on the legislation. Senate Democrats will reportedly be meeting on Thursday to discuss S. 1, where they will establish a path forward.
While 49 Senate Democrats are co-sponsoring S.1, only a handful have publicly committed to changing the Senate filibuster rules. With Republicans already making clear that there is no room for compromise on voting rights, and right-wing state legislatures making it harder to vote each passing day, it will be up to Democrats to decide if current Senate procedure is more important to protect than the principle of majority rule, whatever the imagined consequences. To pass the For the People Act, judicious reform of the filibuster’s twin pillars — the 60-vote requirement to end debate and the time limits for debate — is the best tool available to enable reform as well as all regular order.