The State of Political Reform 2020

Update 419 — The State of Political Reform 2020:
A Year of House Legislation; in Senate, Frustration

Progressives of every stripe, from every region, dedicated to economic, environmental, and other reforms, know that the best way to achieve their singular and common goals is through reform of a political system that frustrates the will of the people.  

On March 8 of last year, the U.S. House passed landmark legislation to reform our political process in ways large and small, tried and new, to broaden ballot access, overhaul campaign finance, and give ethics rules teeth. Below, we look at these reforms and how they are playing out on the Hill and on the campaign trail. 

Good weekends all…

Best,

Dana

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H.R. 1, the For the People Act, proposes the most comprehensive set of political reforms since Watergate, with solutions to pressing problems in our democratic practice, such as expanding access to voting, leveling the campaign finance playing field, and strengthening congressional ethics standards. It passed a year ago Sunday, with every Democrat in the House voting in favor; it languishes in the Senate. Sens. Udall and Merkley introduced the Senate companion, S. 949, shortly after it passed the House. Every Senate Democrat has cosponsored S. 949, yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept this bill from receiving a floor vote.

20/20 Vision — together with over 145 member organizations in the Declaration for American Democracy (DFAD) coalition — is pleased to join the effort to ensure rapid passage of H.R. 1 and implementation of its much-needed reforms. 

Below we provide an overview of the legislation and explore democracy reform on the campaign trail.

Voting Rights and Ballot Box Access

Republicans’ efforts to depress and suppress voter turnout continue as the GOP relies on unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud as a pretext to enact strict voter ID laws, purge voter rolls, and close polling stations. Low-income Americans and people of color are the most affected. In Texas, the 50 counties with the most rapidly growing minority populations now have 542 fewer polling sites than they did in 2012. 

H.R. 1 would expand ballot access, promote internet registration, enable both automatic and same-day registration, and make it easier to cast provisional and mail-in ballots. Additionally, it would protect against voter roll purges by establishing specific conditions under which states can remove voters. The bill would eliminate partisan gerrymandering by requiring that all states use independent citizen commissions to draw congressional districts. 

Campaign Finance Reform

Citizens United v. FEC and its related rulings ushered in an era of unprecedented political spending. The decision allowed dark money to further tilt the balance of political power towards special interests and the wealthy. Eight of the ten most expensive Senate races have occurred since the Citizens United ruling, along with nine of the ten most expensive House races. Non-party outside groups have spent nearly $4.5 billion influencing elections since 2010, five times the amounts spent in 2000. 

Less than 0.5 percent of the population is responsible for nearly three-quarters of all campaign contributions. And per Public Citizen, since the Citizens United decision, just 25 Americans are responsible for nearly half of all super PAC individual contributions. 

H.R. 1 addresses the effects of money in the political system by closing loopholes in political spending disclosure requirements and leveling the campaign finance playing field. It toughens coordination rules between super PACs and candidates by forbidding former campaign staff and immediate family members from running super PACs. The bill introduces a locally-and-time-tested small donor matching-fund system for federal campaigns. 

Ethics Reforms

H.R. 1 strengthens and expands the ethical standards for the federal government and places much-needed limits on executive power and lobbying. The legislation vastly expands the revolving door restrictions by prohibiting outgoing officials from making lobbying contacts and advising lobbying campaigns for two years. 

The bill also bars incoming officials from taking actions that benefit their former employers or clients for two years. H.R. 1 would require presidents, vice presidents, and presidential nominees to disclose ten years of tax returns. These reforms would curb the power of special interests in Washington, paving the way for other productive policies. 

H.R. 1 and 2020

Democracy reform has made its way into the 2020 Democratic presidential primary conversation. All of the Democratic presidential candidates pledged to reject corporate PAC donations. Sens. Sanders and Warren promised not to hold closed-door high-dollar fundraisers. The race has narrowed to two candidates, and both Sen. Sanders and Vice President Biden propose ambitious campaign finance reforms. 

  • Senator Sanders’ plan calls for public financing for all federal elections. Under this proposal, every voting-age American would receive small-dollar vouchers to use in lieu of private campaign donations. Sanders advocates for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and replacing the FEC with a more robust Federal Election Administration.
  • Vice President Biden’s plan includes a constitutional amendment to not only overturn Citizens United but to also ban all private dollars from federal elections. As an intermediate step, Biden would provide matching public funds for all federal candidates accepting small-dollar donations. 

Democracy reform is also gaining traction with candidates trying to flip Republican seats in key 2020 Senate campaigns.

  • Cal Cunningham (NC) is challenging Sen. Thom Tillis and supports restoring the Voting Rights Act, automatic voter registration, and overturning Citizens United. He’s also calling for changes to the Senate filibuster rule, which could be critical to passing these reforms if Democrats take back the chamber.
  • Sara Gideon (ME) is looking to unseat Sen. Susan Collins and supports overturning Citizens United and passing H.R. 1. Gideon’s campaign refuses PAC money, and she has proposed a lifetime ban on former members of Congress becoming lobbyists.

Democratic freshmen who beat Republicans and flipped the House in 2018 are not shying away from their H.R. 1 vote on the campaign trail; they know that this is a winning issue.  In 2019, Gallup found that only 20 percent of Americans were satisfied with current campaign finance laws. Reps. Max Rose (D-NY) and Jason Crow (D-CO) are making campaign finance reform central to their reelection bids. 

Yesterday, Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC) penned an op-ed in the Charleston City Paper observing the anniversary of the bill’s House passage, calling on Mitch McConnell to bring H.R. 1 to a vote in the Senate. But while McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, there will be no reform. A Democratic majority in the Senate is necessary for any action on this bill and the margin in the Senate will likely be razor close.  

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