The House approved a sweeping political money, elections, influence and ethics measure Wednesday, but the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where it will trigger renewed debate over the legislative filibuster.
Championed by Democrats and dubbed HR 1 to symbolize its high priority, the overhaul package passed the House 220-210 in a late-night vote.
Lawmakers also moved up action to Wednesday from Thursday on a different bill, aimed at police procedures. That measure passed the House 220-212, but its Senate fate is also murky. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus had asked that a vote happen before April on the legislation named after George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police last year.
That bill would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants and institute other police accountability measures through the use of federal grant incentives and restrictions. It would relax the qualified immunity doctrine that shields police from lawsuits for actions performed on the job, which is one of Republicans’ objections to the bill.
The HR 1 measure totaled some 800 pages and included 60 pieces of legislation, according to chief author Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland. It would reshape how congressional candidates may fund their campaigns, set minimum access standards for voting and establish new ethical standards for lobbyists, lawmakers and federal officials.
“HR 1 is designed to restore the voices of Americans who felt left out and locked out for too long,” Sarbanes said Wednesday during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol.
Despite the public attention on the measure this year, and in the 116th Congress when a nearly identical version passed the House but not the Senate, many of the provisions and details are still little understood, say supporters and detractors of the overhaul.
“This is a sprawling piece of legislation, and it’s a real mishmash,” said Republican Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who is now a partner in the firm Wiley and opposes the bill. “Because of its length and complexity and because there’s been no committee markup and review, there’s no question there are going to be surprises in this bill.”
The House Administration Committee held one hearing on the bill last week. The panel held a markup of it in the last Congress. Speaker Nancy Pelosi put the measure on a fast track, given that all House Democrats signed on as co-sponsors.
Given its sweeping scope, here are the details on five lesser-known provisions:
Freedom from Influence Fund
A hallmark of the package would set out an optional system to finance congressional campaigns with public money. It would provide a 6-to-1 match of small-dollar campaign donations and, supporters say, would reduce the influence of big campaign donors in the political system and provide a way for less affluent candidates, who don’t have networks of big donors, to run for office.
Though the public matching system has gotten attention, what is less understood is where the public money comes from. Republicans frequently criticize the bill as using taxpayer dollars to fund campaign ads, but Democrats say that’s an inaccurate characterization. The bill establishes something called a Freedom from Influence Fund.
Money to the fund would come in the form of an additional assessment, or surcharge, on fines already paid by tax cheats or companies fined for criminal or civil penalties.
Rep. Rodney Davis, the Illinois Republican who serves as the ranking member on the House Administration panel and has led opposition to the bill, said that once these new assessments flow into the U.S. Treasury, the money belongs to the public, or to taxpayers.
“So anyone who votes for this, this is a vote for corporate money to be laundered into public dollars, and then they’re going to take that corporate money, which would be taxpayer money,” Davis said. He said congressional candidates could fill their campaigns with up to $7.2 million in such money.
Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, which is leading the charge in support of the bill, called Davis’ argument a “red herring,” saying the bill provides an entirely new stream of government funds to pay for the public financing system.
Mailing it in
All states would be required to send voters an application to cast their ballots by mail, according to a manager’s amendment to the bill. Proponents say such provisions aim to make voting easier and more accessible, while opponents argue that Democrats are trying to make permanent some of the emergency changes implemented during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They want to mandate no-excuse mail-in balloting as a permanent norm, post-pandemic,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor last week.
Democrats say, what’s the problem with that?
“In the face of this pandemic, a lot of jurisdictions made it easier for people to vote,” said California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the House Administration Committee. “They engaged in no-excuse absentee voting. They engaged in early voting. And what did we see? The largest number of Americans voting in modern history.”
A number of state legislatures, controlled by Republicans, have moved this year on bills to roll back such practices, and HR 1 would supersede those efforts. Some states, such as Colorado, already offer vote-by-mail to all voters, and HR 1 would not change that.
Influencing K Street
Much of the bill focuses on voting and elections. But one of the more overlooked changes would revamp some longstanding rules on K Street.
Provisions in the bill seek to dial back so-called shadow lobbying, the behind-the-scenes guidance that formerly elected officials often make their post-government living on without having to register as a federal lobbyist and disclose who is paying for their knowledge and influence. Anyone who keeps their lobbying activities under 20 percent of their time for a client (and avoids making one contact with a member of Congress or other “covered official”) can remain under the public radar.
HR 1 would take that threshold down to 10 percent. In short, it would expand the scope of activities that require registering as a federal lobbyist.
“These lobbying changes would be significant, even if that’s all they were doing,” Toner said. “This would alter a lot of the things that are done on K Street.”
The bill also seeks to give the Justice Department new authorities to investigate and penalize foreign lobbying violations under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Supreme code of ethics
Supreme Court justices would face a code of conduct in the bill that would institute new transparency and ethics rules.
It’s currently “the only federal court that is not bound by the judicial code of conduct,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel of public policy and government affairs for Common Cause, which backs the overhaul.
A new holiday
Finally, included in the manager’s amendment to the bill was a provision making Election Day a public holiday. That item was taken out of the bill in the last Congress.
Republicans, such as McConnell, have lambasted the idea of giving Americans the day off, calling it and the entire bill “a power grab” by Democrats.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.