Congress

No cracks in Democratic unity as ethics overhaul glides along

Tuesday saw the first congressional hearing for the HR 1 mega-package

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., is seen after a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the Capitol on Wednesday, January 23, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

If Democrats on the House Judiciary panel have any concerns about their party’s mega-overhaul of voting, ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws, they kept them private on Tuesday during the measure’s first congressional hearing.

The bill, HR 1, is a top priority of the party in the chamber, though it probably won’t go anywhere in the Senate this Congress after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky renewed his opposition Tuesday.

The overhaul is likely to pass the House along party lines and will serve as a major messaging point during the 2020 campaigns, allowing Democratic candidates for Congress and the White House to rail against big money in politics and the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which paved the way for super political action committees.

Rep. Ted Deutch called the bill a “set of desperately needed repairs” for the nation’s democracy.

“This is only a partisan issue in Washington,” the Florida Democrat said. “Everywhere else in America we know that we have to pass HR 1, and we have to overturn Citizens United and restore democracy to the American people.”

Judiciary members during the hearing focused mainly on the parts of the bill that fall under the panel’s scope, including a restoration of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, restoring voting for felons who have served their sentences, and an overhaul of foreign lobbying disclosures, plus new disclosures and a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices.

Other aspects of the bill fall under the House Oversight and Reform or the House Administration panels.

Judiciary Committee Republicans, for their part, showed no signs of potential interest in giving the measure bipartisan backing.

They criticized it for taking too much power from the states and local governments to organize elections and for “wasting” taxpayer money by providing federal funds to candidates who choose to take them as a counterbalance to big political donors.

Ranking Republican Doug Collins of Georgia said the bill would benefit violent criminals, and he dismissed the campaign finance changes as insufficient to provide sunlight on donations, a critique that advocates for campaign finance disclosure found notable.

“If Democrats wanted to work on true campaign finance transparency, HR 1 could require all donations to congressional candidates be disclosed, from $1 to $2,700,” he said.

He said Democrats collected huge sums of political cash in the 2018 elections through ActBlue, an online fundraising platform. Donors who give less than $200 to a candidate are not required to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission under current law.

“The only listed donor was ActBlue,” Collins said. “That tells voters nothing about who is supporting candidates, why and to what end. HR 1 would take more money from voters, but shines no light on the hidden web of anonymous donations that it would support.”

Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia brought up a trip by then-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to a remote “luxury” ranch in Texas — the location of his death — to make the case for the bill’s inclusion of a new code of ethics and additional disclosures for Supreme Court judges, saying he wanted to know who paid for the trip, who was present, and whether they had business before the court.

The bill aims to create a new formula to determine whether certain states or jurisdictions need to get preclearance from the Justice Department before revising their voting rules, a key section of the Voting Rights Act that aimed at reducing racial discrimination. The Supreme Court struck down the old preclearance formula in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, calling it outdated.

GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas agreed with that decision, saying it wasn’t the American way to “keep punishing children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the sins of the original person back over 50 years ago.”

One Republican member, though, reached back more than 50 years ago to blast the bill and its Democratic supporters. Rep. Ken Buck cited what he called voter fraud in Chicago during the 1960 presidential election.

“The Democrat party has a long history of stealing elections in this country,” the Colorado Republican said, drawing eyerolls from the Democratic side of the room.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, an Arizona Republican, called the bill “an outrageous use of taxpayer dollars.”

She seemed in line with McConnell’s criticism, which he reiterated on the Senate floor Tuesday while the House Judiciary hearing was underway.

“They want a new sixfold government ‘match’ for certain types of political contributions, a new federally funded voucher program to line politicians’ pockets with even more taxpayer dollars,” McConnell said, according to his office. “This sprawling power grab clocks in at around 570 pages. Seemingly every one of those pages is filled with some effort to rewrite the rules to favor Democrats and their friends.”

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

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.