Take Care is pleased to present a series of posts offering thoughts on how Congress might address key issues in ethics and anti-corruption reform.
By Stephen Spaulding | Common Cause
Riding a wave of outrage at a corrupt president who abused his power and thought he was above the law, Americans elected a huge class of novice politicians to Congress. Their charge: clean up Washington.
It was 1974. The “Watergate Babies,” as that Congressional class came to be known, shook up Capitol Hill and let sunlight into the dusty backrooms of the House of Representatives. The newbiesconfronted the Congressional seniority system and challenged the presumed powers-that-be, toppling some powerful committee chairs in the process. They went on to push major ethics reforms and laws to shine a light on secret campaign spending. They helped a multiyear effort to pass other landmark legislation responsive to the Watergate scandal, including the Ethics in Government Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Sunshine Act, the Inspector General Act, and amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, among other things.
History may echo in the next Congress.
Last month, Americans elected a far more diverse class of new representatives—the largest incoming cohort of Democrats since the Watergate Babies. Like their predecessors, many of the newly elected campaigned to reform entrenched rules that stack the deck against their constituents back home. As candidates, many of them sent a letter to their future colleagues urging political reform to “be the very first item Congress addresses” in the new year.
Momentum is on their side. Last month, House Democrats announced the key planks of their upcoming political reform package. It will encompass a sweeping set of proposals to bolster and protect the right to vote, hold public officials to high ethical standards, and reduce the undue influence of money in politics.
They’ll introduce the anti-corruption proposal as H.R. 1 in the 116th Congress. As other commentators have noted, the bill number is itself significant. By custom, the first 10 bill numbers are reserved for the most important priorities of a House majority. In the current 115th Congress, for example, Speaker Ryan used H.R. 1 for the GOP’s corporate tax cut plan.
It's no accident that the first piece of substantive legislation is about strengthening democracy. For years, Americans have been organizing for solutions to rebalance our system. Many localities have passedsignificant reforms to empower small dollar donors, lower barriers to participation at the ballot box, and hold officials accountable to the public interest. Hundreds of candidates went on record in 2018 in support of these solutions.
Since 2010, a series of five-to-four Supreme Court decisions significantly weakened laws intended to protect the integrity of our democracy. In 2010, Citizens United recognized a corporation’s First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums of its general treasury funds to influence elections. In 2013, the Court in Shelby County struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act which stood for decades as a bulwark against discriminatory voting practices. Other damaging cases included McCutcheon in 2014, which blew the lids off of aggregate campaign contribution limits, and Husted which blessed Ohio’s practice of triggering voter purges based on an individual’s failure to vote.
Congress failed to pass anything meaningful in response, with one partial exception. In 2010, the House passed the DISCLOSE Act. This legislation would have strengthened every voter’s right to know who is spending money to influence their votes. It would have disclosed the sources of the more than $850 million in secret campaign spending – “dark money” -- that has infected our elections since Citizens United. Although the legislation passed the House, and received 59 cloture votes in the Senate, Senate Republicans filibustered and it died.
Since then, Congress – largely because of Republican intransigence – has done nothing on these issues except to further empower wealthy special interests. It has taken no action to repair the Voting Rights Act, despite a history of exceptionally strong bipartisan support. It has attached ideological “poison pill” provisions to must-pass pieces of legislation—some to prohibit commonsense disclosure laws, and others to further lift the ceiling on contribution limits, allowing major donors to cut six-figure checks to new political party accounts.
So the pent-up demand for affirmative, pro-democracy legislation is palpable. Next year, if HR 1 is as bold a marker as it should be, the House can start to forge a path forward.
The first bucket of the package will address voting and representation laws to ensure that elections are accessible and convenient. Restoring the strength of the Voting Rights Act must be a priority, even if it moves on a tandem path as H.R. 1 so as to provide Congress with the opportunity to engage in vigorous fact-finding and build the record of discriminatory voting procedures that offend basic notions of democracy. To be as robust as possible, H.R. 1 should include automatic voter registration (a commonsense reform gaining traction throughout the country), and Election Day registration so that those who aren’t yet on the rolls can still vote and have their ballot counted as cast. We need to invest in our voting machine infrastructure, including paper ballot voting systems and stronger oversight of election vendors. The bill must also confront the scourge of partisan gerrymandering. One bold reform, independent redistricting commissions, will go a long way to restoring fairness to our system where voters are supposed to choose their politicians – not the other way around.
The second bucket is expected to address our ethics laws—it should strengthen ethics laws to apply to the president of the United States, including rules requiring divestiture from financial interests that pose potential conflicts of interest. The Office of Government Ethics needs to have the tools to conduct investigations and take corrective actions where necessary. The bill should rein in conflicts of interest that spin through the revolving door, including by updating the Lobbying Disclosure Act to cover those who support lobbying activities, not just those who spend 20% of their time doing so under the current rules.
Finally, the third bucket should address the undue influence of money in politics. Far too many Members of Congress are dependent on contributions from a wealthy, tiny, and highly unrepresentativesegment of the population to run competitive campaigns. By amplifying and matching the power of small dollar donors we can democratize the fundraising process. Similar systems exist in New York City, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Arizona, and many other localities. It is a transformative way for new people from all walks of life to run competitive campaigns. And it can help break the grip of wealthy special interests who have disproportionate power over government policies and decisions. H.R. 1 should also include strong disclosure laws so that voters will know who is behind political spending, and reform adysfunctional Federal Election Commission that needs repair.
If that sounds like a lot – it is. But the decades of neglect and changing political dynamics demand comprehensive solutions. There is no one panacea.
Democracy is resilient, but it is vulnerable to the corrosive residue of cynicism. Although H.R. 1 is still in formation, it is imperative that it be transformational. If it passes the House, it will surely hit choppy waters in the Senate in the near term. But it will build power to make due an opportunity to one day – hopefully not too far from now – become law.