Pelosi, Democrats renew push to overhaul election, campaign finance laws

Public funds would match small contributions for candidates

Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes acknowledges that even with a Democrat in the White House, the fate of a sweeping elections and campaign finance overhaul is uncertain.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes acknowledges that even with a Democrat in the White House, the fate of a sweeping elections and campaign finance overhaul is uncertain. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 16, 2020 at 5:07pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday she would press ahead early next year with a campaign finance and elections overhaul, even as the measure may face the same Senate fate it did this Congress: doom. 

House Democrats passed their signature overhaul measure in March 2019 and dubbed it HR 1, indicating its priority. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked it in his chamber, however.

Even though the Senate majority for the 117th Congress hinges on two runoff elections in Georgia, Democrats and their outside allies said they would still push for the measure, spotlighting McConnell’s resistance. 

“The strategy is to keep pointing out that McConnell is the one blocking the bill,” Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, the lead sponsor of the overhaul measure, said Monday during a call with reporters. “He sort of crossed his arms on the Senate side from Day One and said that this legislation will not see the light of day. That’s not a reason not to continue the fight and to amp it up, which is what we’re doing here.”

Sarbanes acknowledged that even with a Democrat in the White House, the measure’s future was uncertain. If Democrats had won the Senate majority outright, it would likely have been atop the chamber’s agenda in the new year. As it is, if Democrats win both Georgia Senate seats, the chamber would only be tied with a Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. 

“We don’t know when and how the opportunity to move this will present itself, but the key is to be ready,” Sarbanes said. 

Pelosi and Sarbanes said during the call that they expect the House to move early next year to pass a bill similar to the current measure, which stretches hundreds of pages. It would set up an optional program to match contributions candidates receive from small donors with six times that amount from the government. It would also institute same-day voter registration and early voting nationwide, and impose new ethics requirements on government officials, among other provisions. 

McConnell unmoved

McConnell indicated Monday that his views have not changed on the big-scope overhaul. 

“By every indication, the 2020 election appears to have been free from meaningful foreign interference,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement put out by his office, referencing his comments from last week. “The absence of any reports of foreign interference is a ringing endorsement of our bipartisan work. And it slams the door on the embarrassing, irresponsible rhetoric that some Washington Democrats spent four years broadcasting.”

Still, Pelosi said she anticipated “a strong vote for this as early as possible in the new Congress.”

Even though a record number of Americans voted in the 2020 elections, members of the outside coalition pushing for the legislation said those voters had to overcome obstacles that the measure aims to remove.

McConnell’s office reupped his opposition from last year when he called the measure an “expensive partisan power grab” aimed at giving Democrats a leg up in future elections. 

A coalition of 170 outside organizations, dubbed the Declaration for American Democracy, will continue to lobby for the package. The groups hail from the civil rights, gun control and political money movements and include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP, March for Our Lives and Public Citizen.

Fred Wertheimer, who runs the campaign finance overhaul group Democracy 21, noted that the 2020 elections shattered previous spending records with an estimated price tag of some $14 billion, including $2.6 billion in outside spending. He said the public matching funds system was sorely needed.

“Without providing candidates with this alternative way to finance their campaigns, political money corruption in Washington will continue and only grow far worse,” he said.

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