Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) is the lead sponsor of the For the People Act, the sprawling bill aimed at getting money out of politics and increasing transparency around donors, cracking down on lobbying, and expanding voting rights for Americans by implementing provisions like automatic voter registration.
“The contrast we are laying out for the American people could not be clearer,” Udall said at a Wednesday press conference unveiling the bill. “This is a historic day for our democracy, and it is not a day too soon. Our democracy is at a crisis point.”
Among many other things, the bill would set up a public campaign finance reform system, implement redistricting reform for federal elections to curb gerrymandering, and implement same-day registration. The House bill was authored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD).
While all 47 Senate Democrats support the anti-corruption bill, they’ve already run up against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has openly mocked the bill and vowed not to bring it to the Senate floor.
“This is a terrible proposal; it will not get any floor time in the Senate,” McConnell told reporters a few days before the House bill passed earlier this month.
McConnell’s staunch opposition to the legislation is handing Democrats a political tool going into 2020. The bill has unanimous support from congressional Democrats in the House and Senate (all House Democrats voted for HR 1).
That sets up a clear political argument Democrats think they can make to voters ahead of the election: They are the party of cleaning up corruption in Washington and have a thorough, exhaustive plan to do it. Republicans, on the other hand, are led by Donald Trump — a president who promised to “drain the swamp” but whose administration has been plagued by ethics scandal after ethics scandal.
And with numerous 2020 Democrats running for president, the anti-corruption bill is sure to get airtime on the campaign trail.
“A lot of people really feel like this is a political system that’s tilted toward the rich and powerful, and a desire to see the field leveled,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is currently running for president. “I get cheers when I talk to people … about not taking corporate PAC money, not taking federal lobbyist money, not taking pharma executive money, because people want their politicians to be void of the pain that’s been caused since Citizens United.”
The Senate version of HR 1 is largely the same
The main pillars of the Senate bill are broadly the same as the House version. Here are the important parts of each section of the bill, briefly explained.
- Establish public financing of campaigns, powered by small donations. The federal government would provide a voluntary 6-1 match for candidates for president and Congress, which means for every dollar a candidate raises from small donations, the federal government would match it six times over. The maximum small donation that could be matched would be capped at $200. Funding for the program would come from adding a 2.75 percent fee on criminal and civil fines, fees, penalties, or settlements with banks and corporations that commit corporate malfeasance (think Wells Fargo). Democrats are using this idea to push back on Republican attacks that taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing campaigns.
- Support a constitutional amendment to end Citizens United.
- Pass the DISCLOSE Act, pushed by Rep. David Cicilline and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats from Rhode Island. This would require Super PACs and “dark money” political organizations to make their donors public.
- Pass the Honest Ads Act, championed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Mark Warner (VA) and introduced by Rep. Derek Kilmer (WA) in the House, which would require Facebook and Twitter to disclose the source of money for political ads on their platforms and share how much money was spent. Facebook has already started doing this on its own.
- Require government contractors to disclose any political spending.
- Slow the flow of foreign money into the elections by targeting shell companies.
- Restructure the Federal Election Commission to have five commissioners instead of six, in order to break political gridlock at the organization.
- Prohibit any coordination between candidates and Super PACs.
- Require the president and vice president (and any candidate for either position) to disclose 10 years of his or her tax returns.
- Require presidents and vice presidents to divest their assets once elected. This is different from the House bill, which offers disclosure as an option instead of mandating divestment.
- Stop senators and members of Congress from using taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment or discrimination cases.
- Give the Office of Government Ethics the power to do more oversight and enforcement and implement stricter lobbying registration requirements. These include more oversight of foreign agents by the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
- Create a new ethical code for the US Supreme Court, ensuring all branches of government are impacted by the new law.
- Create a new national automatic voter registration that asks voters to opt out rather than opt in, ensuring more people will be signed up to vote. Early voting, same-day voter registration, and online voter registration would also be promoted.
- Make Election Day a holiday for federal employees and encourage private sector businesses to do the same, require poll workers to provide a week’s notice if poll sites are changed, and make colleges and universities voter registration agencies (in addition to the DMV, etc.).
- End partisan gerrymandering in federal elections and prohibit voter roll purging. The bill would stop the use of non-forwardable mail being used as a way to remove voters from rolls.
- Beef up election security, including requiring the director of national intelligence to do regular checks on foreign threats.
- Recruit and train more poll workers ahead of the 2020 election to cut down on long lines at the polls.
Democrats think they can win on this issue in 2020
House Democrats strongly believe that running on an anti-corruption message is part of what propelled them to a stunning midterms win in 2018, and helped them flip a number of red districts to blue.
There’s some polling to suggest the issue is extremely popular, not just with Democratic voters but with independents, whom Democrats will need to help them get to a win in the 2020 presidential and congressional races.
November polling from the PAC End Citizens United found that 75 percent of 2018 voters in battleground House districts said cracking down on Washington corruption was their top priority, followed by 71 percent who wanted to protect Social Security and Medicare, and 70 percent who listed growing the economy and jobs.
“I can’t tell you how much when you’re out with citizens that they really reject the system we have right now, the way Congress doesn’t represent their interests on major issues,” Udall said.
That idea clearly resonated on the right in 2016 as well; Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” was one of the factors that helped propel him into office.
But McConnell has no interest in taking up the legislation, arguing that disclosing political donors would impinge on free speech and calling the bill the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”
“He’s really our opponent; he’s really dug in on this,” Udall told Vox in a recent interview. “I don’t know that having a conversation with him is going to work right now, from everything I’ve heard.”
At the same time, Democrats are happy to have such a stark contrast with Republicans going into 2020.
“To say to the public, from this point forward, if you give the gavel to lawmakers who are interested in being accountable to you, this is the kind of change you can expect to see,” said Sarbanes, the bill’s author and main sponsor in the House. “If you like this, give us a gavel in the Senate and give us a pen in the White House.”