Politics

House Democrats unveil first major legislative package of voting, campaign finance and ethics overhauls

Committees will soon begin marking up aspects of the package ahead of floor vote on H.R. 1

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., plan to bring a bill to the floor in the coming weeks to overhaul voting and campaign finance laws. Democrats are introducing it as H.R. 1 to signal that it’s their top priority. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Automatic voter registration, independent redistricting commissions, super PAC restrictions, forced release of presidential tax returns — these are just a handful of the provisions in a massive government overhaul package House Democrats will formally unveil Friday, according to a summary of the legislation obtained by Roll Call. 

The package is being introduced as H.R. 1 to show that it’s the top priority of the new Democratic majority. Committees with jurisdiction over the measures will hold markups on the legislation before the package is brought to the floor sometime later this month or early in February. 

H.R. 1 features a hodgepodge of policies Democrats have long promoted as solutions for protecting voters’ rights and expanding access to the polls, reducing the role of so-called dark money in politics, and strengthening federal ethics laws. 

The package includes several Democratic bills that have gone nowhere in previous Congresses where Republicans held the House majority. It has broad support of the Democratic Caucus and will provide the new majority, which is roughly split between moderate and progressive members, an opportunity to show they can unify around significant policy changes. 

Democrats say making a massive government overhaul package the first major bill they advance will prove to voters who gave them the majority that they’re willing to change Washington.

Passing H.R. 1 will “restore integrity to government, so that people can have confidence that government works for the people, not the special interests,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a floor speech Thursday upon accepting the gavel. 

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

Voting rights and election integrity

One of the three major themes of the package is voting: ensuring citizens have access to the polls and their rights aren’t suppressed, as well as protecting the integrity and security of U.S. elections.

The measure aims to increase voter registration by requiring states to provide an online option for registering and allowing voters to register the same day they go to the polls to vote. It would also require state election officials to automatically register citizens who don’t register themselves. 

Another provision makes it unlawful for anyone to hinder or prevent someone from registering to vote and instructs the Election Assistance Commission to develop best practices for states to deter such violations. 

The measure would also ban the practice known as voter caging in which registered voters are purged from the rolls because mail sent to their registered address was returned undeliverable.

Convicted felons could not be denied the right to vote under the measure, unless they’re currently serving their sentence in prison. Florida voters passed a statewide ballot measure in November to restoring voting rights to felons, but 12 states still have laws that indefinitely deny voting rights for some convicted felons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

States would be barred from imposing restrictions on voting by mail and required to send absentee ballots at least 45 days before an election. 

Other voting-related provisions in H.R. 1 include making Election Day a federal employment holiday, increasing penalties for voter intimidation, providing grants to improve voting for individuals with disabilities, mandating states use paper ballots and guaranteed availability of early voting in federal elections for at least 15 consecutive days. 

Another title of the bill covering election integrity provisions requires states to adopt independent redistricting commissions for drawing congressional boundaries.

That section also declares that Congress should respond to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder (that declared part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional) by updating the formula for determining which state and local governments need federal preclearance before they can implement changes to their voting laws.

Democrats plan to follow through on that declaration in later legislation after holding hearings to establish a record that will meet the requirements outlined in the Supreme Court decision. 

The measure will also provide a sense of Congress statement endorsing statehood for the District of Columbia so that its residents can have full congressional voting rights. 

A section of the package on election security would require the Department of Homeland Security to assess threats to election systems at least 180 days before an election and inform states of their findings. It also authorizes the Election Assistance Commission to provide various grants to states to help shore up the security of their systems and establishes a national commission for countering threats to the country’s democratic institutions. 

Campaign finance 

A campaign finance overhaul is another major component of the package. It includes a variety of bills Democrats have long wanted to pass to limit the role of money in politics.

The measure targets foreign influence by banning contributions and expenditures from corporations with significant foreign ownership or control and dark money by requiring super PACs and 501(c)(4) entities to disclose donors who contribute more than $10,000.

A public database would be established under the measure to disclose political ad purchase requests totaling more than $500.

Presidential inaugural committees would also come under stronger oversight under the measure. The organizations would face aggregate contribution limits and would be required to disclose their expenditures, which could not be used for purposes unrelated to the inauguration. 

The measure would also repeal prohibitions that have stopped the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission from issuing regulations on political activity and spending. 

In an effort to promote small-dollar donations, the measure would establish a publicly financed 6:1 matching system on up to $200 for House candidates and on the first $200 donated to a presidential candidate. 

A provision designed to help candidates with modest incomes run for office would allow campaign funds to be spent on child and elder care, rent or mortgage payments and health insurance costs. 

Ethics

The other major component of the bill involves changes to ethics laws.

The section features a mandate that presidents publicly release their tax returns — something that President Donald Trump has refused to do. House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee plan to try to use an obscure law to obtain Trump’s returns now that they’re in the majority. 

The Office of Government Ethics would be reauthorized under the measure and its enforcement mechanisms strengthened. The measure bans corporations from making incentive payments to executive branch employees for entering government service and prohibits departed senior officials from lobbying their former agencies for two years. 

Newly elected presidents would have to develop ethics plans for their transition teams under the legislation, and presidents and vice presidents would be required to submit new financial disclosure reports within 30 days of taking office. 

The measure also calls for the development of a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices. 

Restrictions would also be placed on members of Congress under the legislation. They would be banned from serving on boards of for-profit entities and from using taxpayer funds to settle employment discrimination claims — provisions designed to address ethical dilemmas lawmakers faced last Congress. 

Most titles of the legislation contain a severability clause stating that if any provision of the title is found unconstitutional, the other portions of the title should not be affected. 

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