Senate Introduces H.R. 1 Companion Bill (March 29)

Update 342: Sen. Companion to HR 1 Dropped, Cosponsored by Entire Democratic Caucus

On Wednesday, Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley introduced S. 949, the “For the People Act,” the Senate companion bill to H.R. 1.  The bill was co-sponsored by the entire Senate Democratic caucus and the two Democratic-leaning independents, Sens. Sanders and King the day it was dropped.  

H.R. 1, the House version of this landmark democracy reform package, passed on March 8 with the support of all Democrats.  S. 949, known as Udall-Merkley, comes up in the Senate, probably not for formal consideration but for debate in other platforms afforded by the Senate.  Below, we track changes and new provisions in Udall-Merkley and look at what’s ahead for the bill.

Good weekends all,

Dana

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S. 949 and H.R. 1 are nearly identical, save for a handful of provisions in the campaign finance and ethics sections of the bills. The campaign finance section of S. 949 accounts for the difference of scale between House and Senate elections. The S. 949 ethics section omits two Title VII provisions focused on lobbying disclosure reform. Although S. 949 is unlikely to receive a vote on the Senate floor this Congress, the issues it raises will be the focus of tight Senate races and the presidential election.  

Voting Rights

S. 949 made no changes to the substance of Titles I-III, the Votings Rights section of H.R. 1. The most pervasive myth about the voting rights reforms is that they “allow noncitizens to vote,” which gained traction after Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s (R) motion to recommit on H.R. 1 lost 228-197. Crenshaw sought to add a fourth “division” to the bill that underscored the illegality of noncitizens voting. As Democratic Representatives repeatedly stated during hearings on the House side, no such provision was included in H.R. 1 because it is already illegal for noncitizens to vote.

Language may later be strengthened in a stand-alone bill that could try to absolve ineligible individuals in the event they get mistakenly registered through automatic voter registration and then, believing they’re eligible, vote — a situation that would only occur in rare instances.

Some stand-alone voting rights pieces have already been introduced in both chambers. Most notably, the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) of 2019 was filed last month by Rep. Terri Sewell in the House and Sen. Patrick Leahy in the Senate. Both bills have the majority of the Democratic caucus as cosponsors. The VRAA would restore Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key goal of H.R. 1 and S. 949.

Campaign Finance Reform

Title V, the Campaign Finance Empowerment section of the Senate bill, differs most from H.R. 1 because of the differences in scale between Congressional House elections and Senate elections.  Udall-Merkley:

  • renamed the small dollar matching program the Fair Elections Now Act, as opposed to the Government by the People Act in H.R. 1.
  • omits reference to the “My Voice Voucher” program detailed in the House bill. The program would be tried in three states and would provide qualified individuals with a voucher worth $25 that can be used in increments of $5 to support multiple candidates of their choice.
  • keeps the $200 cap and the 6-to-1 match for the small dollar matching program remains the same in the Senate bill, but the text accounts for the size differences between states and House districts by increasing the amount of small dollar contributions that would qualify a candidate for the program.
  • adds new language that seeks to improve broadcast information available to voters. The bill outlines measures to stop licensees from preventing use of a broadcasting station by a candidate for Senate who has paid for such use, and establishes limits on what a television broadcaster can charge in the days leading up to a primary or general election.
  • introduces a de novo provision for “political advertising vouchers” for qualifying candidates, amounting to $100,000 multiplied by the number of congressional districts in the state. These vouchers may be used to purchase airtime for political advertisements, or their value may be transferred to a committee of the political party of which the individual is a candidate.

The small dollar matching program pay-for, both for Senate and presidential elections, is the same as in the House bill. The Freedom from Influence Fund draws on a 2.75 percent levy on federal fines, penalties, and settlements for tax crimes and corporate malfeasance. The sustainability of the Fund is critical, as the small dollar matching program will be scaled-down on a pro rata basis in the event of deficient funds. The final pay-for will likely be changed in the event the bill becomes law, so monitor this as the bill makes its way through the legislative process.

Ethics Reform

H.R. 1 and S. 949 differ little in the ethics section. Since the section had no de novo provisions, the Senate did not have to come up with any new language for any provisions in this section. The Senate bill did leave out two provisions in Title VII dealing with lobbying disclosure, which:

  • would have reduced the percentage to determine whether a lobbying contact needs to register as a lobbyist from 20 percent of an individual’s time engaged in services to 10 percent.
  • would have barred compensation for lobbying activities on behalf of foreign countries that the President determines are violating human rights. This provision was left out because some Senate Democrats are worried about giving further power to the Executive branch.

What’s Next?

H.R. 1 will probably not be enacted until the Senate changes hands. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already vowed not to bring it up for consideration. He has argued that disclosing political donors would impinge on free speech and called H.R.1 the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.” Senate Democrats know that trying to convince McConnell may be a fool’s errand.  

As Sen. Udall told reporters, “[McConnell is] really our opponent; he’s really dug in on this. I don’t know that having a conversation with him is going to work right now.” McConnell rose to power in his party in large part because he has been willing to publicly oppose popular anti-corruption legislation and campaign finance reforms.

No Republicans have signed on so far, but some Democratic Senators believe that a grassroots effort could influence lawmakers in four key 2020 Senate swing states: Arizona, North Carolina, Maine, and Colorado. These states have GOP Senators in danger of losing in the coming election, and they may be more likely to come to the table to discuss the issues in S. 949.

For the People, vs. Buy the People

The momentum behind H.R. 1 and S. 949 is growing at the grassroots and in the states, with a vast range of organizations weaving democracy reform issues into their agenda. These issues could also be a large part of the debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar have all championed political reform during their time in Congress. Grassroots pressure and a continuing national conversation give the For the People Act a potency that could make it central in the 2020 elections.  

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