Congress

Democrats press Senate to take up overhaul of campaigns and ethics

Before two-week recess starts, Pelosi touts bill House passed 200 days ago

Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a Thursday news conference in the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As House Democrats pursue an impeachment inquiry based largely on possible campaign finance violations against President Donald Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats sought a fresh spotlight for their stalled political money, ethics and elections overhaul measure.  

The House passed the bill by a vote of 234-193 along party lines on March 8, 200 days ago, the California Democrat noted. 

“We sent this legislation over to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and it’s been sitting there in his grim reaper role,” Pelosi said at a Friday news conference flanked by several House Democratic freshmen who ran on many of the proposals included in the measure. “We’re saying to him, ‘You may think this is dead over there, grim reaper' — what a nice thing to say about yourself — but it is alive and well in the public.”

House Democrats’ mega overhaul bill seeks to remake the nation’s voting, campaign finance and ethics laws and to shore up security at ballot boxes. That’s an especially urgent matter, Democrats argue, with the 2020 elections about a year away. 

The measure’s lead sponsor, Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, acknowledged that the Senate was unlikely to take up the bill under McConnell's leadership, and he said it would remain a signature proposal for his party’s congressional and presidential candidates in the 2020 campaigns.

Freshman Democrats such as Reps. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Joe Neguse of Colorado concurred.

They also said they could continue to work on their party's legislative agenda while pursuing impeachment, saying they had an obligation to do both.

"It's a solemn moment for our country," Neguse said.

McConnell said from the get-go that he would not consider the overhaul legislation in his chamber.

The Kentucky Republican has been a longtime opponent of regulations on political money, including leading a legal challenge against the bipartisan 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance measure. The White House said the president would veto the bill if it somehow managed to get through the Senate.

Some of K Street’s biggest-spending lobbying interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, mobilized against the Democrats’ overhaul, arguing that the measure would silence the business community and trade associations in the political process with new disclosure rules for donors to some outside groups.

The bill would require disclosure of donors who give $10,000 or more to organizations such as the chamber that engage in certain types of political expenditures — including spending $10,000 or more on ads that promote, attack, support or oppose candidates or elected officials.

It would establish an optional 6-to-1 public matching system for political donations under $200, with the money coming from fines imposed on corporations.

Vouchers for small donors

House Democrats said the optional public financing of elections, as well as proposals to launch pilot voucher programs to give people small sums to donate to candidates, would serve as a counterbalance to the influence of big political donors.

In addition, the package would set new guidelines for the types of behind-the-scenes advising that would require someone to register as a federal lobbyist. And it would give new investigative authority to the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act unit, which monitors foreign lobbying campaigns in the United States.

The overhaul also would give more power to the Office of Government Ethics and would tighten ethical standards that apply to officials in the executive branch, including presidents and vice presidents.

Haaland said the overhaul would make it easier for people to vote because it includes her proposal for same-day voter registration and that it would protect access to the ballot box.

She added that “it ends the era of big money in politics” and would usher “in a new culture of ethics and accountability across all three branches of government.”

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