Congress

Anti-corruption, campaign finance overhaul bills preview likely 2020 campaign theme

Issue is likely to remain a signature theme for Democrats running for the White House and Congress

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo.(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Even as House Democrats have made a political overhaul a top priority, numerous lawmakers, including freshman members, have filed their own campaign finance and anti-corruption bills, a sign the topic will dominate into the 2020 campaigns.

Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat who unseated Republican Mike Coffman last November, introduced his first bill last week: a measure that could lead to disclosures of donors to 501(c)(4) “social welfare” tax-exempt groups that play in politics.

“There is a significance in having this be my first bill,” Crow said in a phone interview. “People deserve to know who’s spending money to influence their vote.”

Along those same lines, another freshman, New York Democrat Max Rose, has also introduced legislation aimed at the K Street lobbying corridor, while some longtime Democratic lawmakers — including Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana — have offered new bills regulating political money.

Those come as House Democrats are pushing their catch-all campaign finance, ethics, lobbying and voting overhaul, which the House Oversight and Reform Committee plans to examine in a hearing Wednesday.

Also watch: Pelosi, Lewis and House Democrats unveil legislative agenda for 116th

The multitude of proposals reflect the high profile that political money has taken on. And the issue is likely to remain a signature theme for Democrats running for the White House and Congress in 2020. In addition to the bills, nearly all of which are unlikely to make it into law this Congress, at least 51 lawmakers, including those who have announced presidential runs, have taken symbolic pledges that they will reject campaign donations from corporate political action committees and, sometimes, other types of PACs.

Crow recalled that during his time on the campaign trail, it became clear to him across issues — including health care, gun violence or climate change — that big money in politics was stymieing proposals he supports.

“I wanted to get to the root of the problem,” he said of his bill, for which he is seeking GOP support.

His measure would repeal a prohibition on the IRS from investigating so-called dark money 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity, a conservative-leaning group linked to Charles and David Koch, and Majority Forward, which is aligned with wealthy Democratic donors.

Conservative groups have concerns with the measure.

“I understand their point of view, but I just think the IRS is the wrong agency to do that,” said David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, which favors campaign finance deregulation on free speech grounds. “Imagine putting the [Federal Election Commission] in charge of tax collection — they would completely botch it. We don’t want the IRS serving like a Federal Election Commission, and that’s what this bill is trying to do.”

Rep. John Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who is the chief sponsor of House Democrats’ overhaul, said the stand-alone bills, some of which are also included in the HR 1 package, allow individual members to highlight specific proposals as well as offer some pieces a chance for bipartisan support.

“They know the kind of things that resonate and wanted to take a leadership role in showcasing these individual components,” Sarbanes said. “I think it’s all part of a strategy of bringing attention to these important democracy reforms.”

The freshman Democrats, in particular, Sarbanes said, made these issues a centerpiece of their campaigns.

“They’ve got a very clear directive from their constituents,” he said. “I credit the freshman class, the new members, with keeping the focus on this reform package and bringing the energy to bear so that Washington doesn’t slide back into business as usual.”

Rose recently introduced a bill aimed at closing a so-called lobbying loophole.

He invoked the past unregistered influence work of both Michael Cohen, a former lawyer for President Donald Trump, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who did not disclose clients to whom they were offering strategic advice. The congressional lobbying protocol does not require paid advocates to register as federal lobbyists unless they contact more than one covered government official and spend at least 20 percent of their time on lobbying activities for a specific client.

Rose’s bill would require people to register as lobbyists if their strategic guidance was in support of a lobbying contact, even if they didn’t personally make the contact.

“If someone acts like a lobbyist, and is paid like a lobbyist, then they ought to register as a lobbyist,” Rose said.

It’s not just the newbies of Capitol Hill getting in on the campaign finance bills.

Kaptur recently introduced a trio of campaign overhaul measures including a constitutional amendment nullifying the Supreme Court decision Citizens United, which paved the way for super PACs, and a bill that would require two hours of free television advertising for candidates.

“If we are to restore the American people’s faith in our democratic process, then we must take meaningful steps to reform our campaign finance system,” the Ohio Democrat said in a news release.

Over in the Senate, New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall is expected to introduce a companion to the House Democrats’ catch-all overhaul, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already begun railing against the bill. McConnell, a foe of new campaign finance regulations, has blasted the overhaul for including a public or taxpayer financing option for candidates and for the creation of a new federal holiday on Election Day.

Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Tester also recently introduced a bill that would require nonprofit organizations to publicly disclose their donors who give more than $5,000.

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