Senate Democrats Announce First Order Of Business For New Majority: Fixing Democracy

After Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections, they introduced and passed the For the People Act as H.R. 1 — the first bill of their majority. It aimed to restore voting rights, reform campaign finance laws and enhance ethics enforcement. Senate Democrats have now done the same after reclaiming the chamber majority with the introduction of S. 1, their version of the For the People Act.

These nearly identical bills contain a suite of policies to protect, enhance and expand democracy, according to supporters. These policies would institute national standards for expanded voting rights, create a system for publicly financed congressional elections, ban undisclosed “dark money” and forbid partisan gerrymandering.

But there’s more urgency now. American democracy is imperiled like at no other time in modern history; the country is coming off an election in which President Donald Trump refused to accept his loss. With the help of national and local Republicans, he launched legal efforts to overturn or ify the voting results. These lies culminated in the violent sacking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that left five people dead.

“We have all been reminded in the starkest terms that government of the people, by the people, and for the people is not guaranteed,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.),” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead Senate sponsor of the For the People Act with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), said in a statement introducing the bill. “A violent assault on the Capitol is not the only way to attack democracy. Everyone who believes in our Constitutional vision should support reforms that make sure the American people are able to vote and that their government reflects their preferences and works for them.”

Democrats prioritized these reforms in 2019 in response to the ever-growing influence of money in politics; greater Republican Party efforts to make voting more difficult, particularly for racial minority groups; and the rising threat of minority rule. These issues remain as well.

Democrats do not intend to waste time. The House bill, introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) on Jan. 4, could get a floor vote as early as Jan. 28, according to a congressional aide. But it may take longer for the bill to move on the Senate side.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the outgoing majority leader, attacked the 2019 bill as “socialist” as he blocked consideration in the Senate. But with a new majority soon to be in place, the legislation can get full consideration, although Senate Democrats will need to hold hearings first in the relevant committees and then the Rules Committee before advancing the bill to the floor. But it may need to wait until after Congress passes another round of COVID-19 relief.

The bill would need to receive 60 votes to prevent it from being blocked by a Republican filibuster on the floor. That is unless Democrats decide to end the use of the filibuster entirely or on a case-by-case basis. Though such considerations have been discussed, there remains no consensus on how Democrats will approach the filibuster in the coming months.

There is a lot at stake in whether Democrats can pass the For the People Act quickly. State-level Republicans are already gearing up to pass a raft of new voting restrictions in states including Georgia and Texas, inspired by Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud in the November election. The states will also begin a new round of redistricting this year, which could cement Republican Party gerrymanders in dozens of states for another 10 years.

The first section of the bill would institute national standards for voting in every state to expand access to the ballot. These include mandating automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, at least 15 days of early in-person voting, “no excuse” mail-in voting with postage prepaid, online voter registration and the restoration of voting rights to felons upon release from custody.

The bill would also block states from making it harder to vote by banning certain voter purge practices while imposing new penalties for deceptive electioneering. And it would require every state election system to maintain a paper ballot trail, among many other election security provisions.

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This section was largely written by the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights hero. It was Lewis who first introduced these reforms as the Voter Empowerment Act in each Congress beginning in 2012 until his death in 2020. He incorporated them into the For the People Act in 2019 as a co-author along with the bill’s lead sponsor Sarbanes and many other Democratic lawmakers.

In addition to the voting rights reforms first proposed by Lewis, the bill also includes a requirement that every state appoint an independent and nonpartisan redistricting board to draw new congressional districts after each decennial census.

The For the People Act also provides a list of congressional findings in support of the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2021, which will be introduced in the House separately.

The section of the bill contains a litany of campaign finance reforms built on the work of Sarbanes and others over the past decade.

It would create the first public financing for congressional elections in which candidates would receive $6 for every $1 in funds raised from donations up to $200. Participants in this voluntary public financing system would also be prevented from raising money from large donors. The bill creates a similar small-donor matching system for presidential elections.

Previously introduced election transparency proposals are also in the bill, including the Disclose Act, which would ban undisclosed dark money spent by political nonprofits on elections, and the Honest Ads Act, which mandates the disclosure of the buyers of digital and social media advertising.

The Federal Election Commission would be reconfigured from six members to five to prevent deadlocks on important issues. Coordination between super PACs and candidates would be defined in the legislation and banned. Presidential inauguration committees would be required to disclose expenditures and be banned from spending money on anything not related to the actual inauguration.

Beyond voting rights and campaign finance reforms, the bill expands ethics and lobbying laws to take on both long-standing abuses and those made evident by the pervasive corruption of the Trump administration.

Every presidential candidate would be required to disclose 10 years’ worth of tax returns under the bill. The president and the vice president would be required to conduct themselves as though the executive branch’s conflict-of-interest regulations apply to them. And neither the president nor the vice president would be allowed to hold a contract with the U.S. government, as Trump did for his hotel in Washington, D.C. 

The Office of Government Ethics would get new enforcement powers, and ethics waivers issued by OGE would have to be publicly disclosed. The bill also closes lobbying disclosure loopholes by requiring all people engaged in lobbying to register whether they contact government officials or not.

And for the first time, the Supreme Court would be required to institute a code of ethics to govern conflicts of interest and recusals.

Senate Democrats released a summary of the bill’s entire contents on Tuesday that can be read here.