Flanked by newly elected freshman lawmakers Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi revealed the Democratic Party’s first piece of legislation for 2019: a package of voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reforms that is meant to help restore integrity in government, one of the party’s key campaign promises in the 2018 midterm elections.
The story of how the bill came to life shows how Democrats have long prepared for this moment to push a new set of reforms to change the way Washington works.
The details of the proposal are still being worked out, and the bill has yet to be named, but Democrats previewed a short list of what it will include on Friday: the creation of a system of publicly financed elections for congressional campaigns, automatic voter registration, ethics reforms for the executive branch and Congress, the application of judicial ethics laws to the Supreme Court, an end to partisan gerrymandering, laws on disclosure of dark money and a reinstatement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which had required certain states to get preclearance before making changes that affect voting.
The last time the party controlled Congress, it failed to pass a campaign finance reform bill or new voting rights reforms. This time around, however, they can count on years of preparatory work by a dedicated group of lawmakers who had been empowered by Pelosi since 2011 to gather reform ideas, build support for them within the party and then mold them into a legislative package.
That process has been led by Rep. John Sarbanes, a six-term congressman from Maryland who became a fierce advocate of campaign finance reform after growing frustrated with the way political candidates are pressured to raise money from big donors.
Sarbanes had long been determined to try to shake things up. “I just woke up one day and — I just can’t keep doing this the same old way,” he told HuffPost in 2013.
He ran a personal experiment during his own campaign mimicking, if only crudely, the New York City public campaign funding system that provides $5 in public funds for every $1 raised in small donations. It may have been a gimmick, but the congressman took it seriously and turned his experiment into a personal cause to make publicly financed congressional campaigns a reality. He convinced enough of his colleagues to support it, and he became the leading reform voice in the House.
This successful advocacy within the caucus moved Pelosi to appoint him as head the party’s Democracy Reform Task Force in February 2017. He set out to craft and build support for democracy reform legislation and respond to the endless stream of ethical malfeasance emanating from the Trump administration. Pelosi empowered Sarbanes and the task force by putting no limits on its work.
“She wasn’t prescriptive beyond saying, in a sense, collect the best evidence as to where and how our democratic system is failing and start assembling good ideas and proposals for how we can fix that,” Sarbanes said.
With the help of a diverse group of vice chairs, Sarbanes held town halls and roundtables around the country, meeting with pollsters and reform advocates and debating legislation with fellow lawmakers. This enabled the task force to build broad-based support and empower lawmakers from every part of the country.
“He’s a mighty leader of a broad coalition,” Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) said of Sarbanes.
The final product includes Sarbanes’ own public financing bill, Rep. Terri Sewell’s (D-Ala.) legislation to reinstate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Rep. Mark Pocan’s (D-Wis.) bills to require paper ballots for voting machines, Kuster’s legislation banning members from using taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment claims and the work of Rep. Marc Veasey’s (D-Texas) Voting Rights Caucus in pushing ways to increase absentee and early voting and raise the funding for election infrastructure.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s election, the ensuing ethical morass of his corrupt administration and the steady flow of criminal convictions of his campaign officials helped inject the task force with an urgency to put a different face out there.
“It made the mission of the task force that much more critical and brought us to a place where essentially we wanted to be ready at the first opportunity to put a different vision of how the system should operate forward,” Sarbanes said.
The work of the task force was rolled into Democrats’ campaign messaging as the “Better Deal for Our Democracy” in May. Candidates had already adopted reformist postures on their own by rejecting corporate PAC contributions and endorsing broad reforms. These ideas were popular topics on the campaign trail, where voters held strong beliefs that nothing could be done in Washington because of the corrupting influence of money.
“One of the most popular applause lines I had in any speech was to say I was not taking any corporate PAC contributions,” Rep.-elect Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) recalled. “I found that this was a pledge that appealed to people on every side of the political divide.”
“Across our campaigns we heard people talking about their concerns about lack of trust for elected officials or their concerns about dollars in campaign funding or their concerns about dollars in politics, and we’ve heard you,” Rep.-elect Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) echoed. “We want to make a change. We want to push out this agenda that shows you should trust us.”
Sarbanes campaigned with candidates including Malinowski and Spanberger to push the party’s new democracy reform message with the aim of electing a new class dedicated to reform to help carry the legislation over the finish line once in office.
“They’ve come with this message of reform pinned to their chest as a class,” Sarbanes said. “And luckily, because of the work of this task force, because of the charge that we were given by leader Pelosi, we were ready with a good strong framework of a comprehensive package.”
The incoming lawmakers will still have time to add to the bill in the coming months. Sarbanes and the task force’s vice chairs are still meeting with members to discuss their ideas. He will address the Congressional Progressive Caucus about the bill next week. And the bill will go through three committees with jurisdiction: administration, judiciary, and oversight and government reform.
Democrats, both newly elected and long-serving, say they believe that these reforms must be done first to be able to tackle the other issues they care about, such as lowering pharmaceutical prices, reforming trade deals and enacting gun control.
“We can’t get anything done with government if government is corrupted by money and the control of special interests,” Rep. Jaime Raskin (D-Md.) said.
Democrats also hope that the bill provides a bit of hope for Americans looking to do something about the specific malfeasance of the Trump administration.
“I think this legislation is like a lifeline where we can say, OK, yeah, we may have stumbled a little bit as a country, but damn it, we’re getting back up and we’re going to get back to a sense of normal,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said.
The bill will undoubtedly face hurdles if it clears the House. Senate Republicans are led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the most vocal opponent of campaign finance reform in American politics, and also do not support the expansion of voting rights. Trump is unlikely to sign his name to legislation imposing new ethics laws to him that could lead to him being forced to sell his company.
Sarbanes says that even if Republicans torpedo their legislation, it’s a winning issue for Democrats. The party, he says, must brand itself as the anti-corruption party not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s what the public demands.
“I’d love to live in a world where the right thing to do is also a political winner,” Sarbanes said.
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