POLITICS

Congress Deluged With False Attack On Voting Rights And Campaign Finance Reform Bill

Anti-Muslim group ACT for America falsely claims Democrats' top bill allows lawmakers to pay themselves extra.

An anti-Muslim conservative group is flooding congressional offices with emails with a false attack on the For The People Act, Democrats’ top legislative priority, one week before the House will vote to pass it.

The email campaign organized by ACT for America falsely states that the For The People Act, a package of voting rights, election, campaign finance and ethics reforms that bears top billing as H.R. 1 and S. 1 in both chambers of Congress, will allow lawmakers to pay themselves an additional $600,000 in compensation on top of their existing $174,000 annual congressional salary. Congressional offices received more than 330,000 emails with this message by Monday afternoon.

“I think it’s unfair for Congress to pass legislation (HR 1) that will force taxpayers to fund your political campaigns and let lawmakers draw a SECOND salary worth as much as $600,000 per year (based on CBO estimates) ... on top of the generous taxpayer-funded paychecks and perks you already receive!” the email form sent to congressional offices states.

The problem with this assertion is that it has no basis in reality.

“I don’t know where they’re coming up with this,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform with Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that supports the For The People Act, said. “Some attacks might involve misinterpretations or hyperbole about the bill, but this is completely false.”

The bill would create a first-of-its-kind system to publicly fund congressional elections. Congressional candidates could opt in to the voluntary public funding system to receive $6 in public matching funds for every $1 in small donor contributions they raise so long as they submit to certain campaign fundraising and spending rules.

The money would go the candidates’ campaigns, not into their personal banking accounts. And there are strict rules about what candidates can spend that campaign money on. Most important for the argument laid out by ACT for America, congressional incumbents cannot pay themselves a salary from their campaign account. That is strictly forbidden.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) speaks alongside Democratic members of the House about H.R.1, the For the People A
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) speaks alongside Democratic members of the House about H.R.1, the For the People Act, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C, on Jan. 4, 2019.

As recently as 2019, then-Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty to illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses. (President Donald Trump pardoned Hunter in January.) Violations of the personal use ban are one of the most commonly prosecuted campaign finance crimes.

The Federal Election Commission did authorize non-incumbents to pay themselves a prorated salary as a way to help non-wealthy candidates to be able to afford to run for Congress. But there are limits on how much money a non-incumbent candidate can pay themselves that fall far below $600,000.

The bill would authorize non-incumbent candidates to use campaign funds to pay for child care and health insurance premiums, but that would be deducted from any salary paid to the candidate by the campaign. This provision would only apply to non-incumbents. Incumbent lawmakers would not be allowed to use campaign funds for this purpose as they are already paid a six-figure salary by the federal government.

There is also no Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate that exists stating that lawmakers will be able to draw a second salary worth up to $600,000 due to any provision in the For The People Act. The CBO reports that do exist for the For The People Act from 2019, when the bill was first introduced, make no such mention of said “second salary,” as no such provision exists.

ACT for America is the leading nonprofit organization in conservative Islamophobia activism. Brigitte Gabriel, the group’s founder, previously stated that practicing Muslims “cannot be loyal citizens of the United States” and, therefore, should not be allowed to hold elected office or government jobs, an echo of Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s anti-Communist demagoguery. The group, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, is also opposed to immigration and refugee resettlement. Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort and current home, refused to host a gala event planned by the group in 2019. 

In 2019, ACT for America signed on to a conservative coalition letter in opposition to the For The People when the bill was first considered and passed by the House of Representatives.

House Democrats plan to bring the bill to the floor for a vote the week of March 1. Every House Democrat has co-sponsored the bill, assuring that it will pass the House. For the bill to become law it will have to surmount a filibuster in the Senate, where the opposition campaign will heat up.

“This email seems to be the first one that is barraging congressional offices,” Fischer said. “There’s going to be more to come.”