Congress

Some Democrats see political system overhaul as winning 2020 issue

Bill to revamp campaign finance and voting passed House early, then stalled in Senate

Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., talks with the media after votes on Capitol Hill in September. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If Rep. Max Rose’s voters expected the freshman lawmaker from Staten Island, New York, to quiet down this election cycle about a major overhaul of the nation’s political system, they were mistaken.

It was a centerpiece of the Democrat’s campaign-trail mantra in 2018. And now, as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Congress, he’s not stopping. Neither are many of his similarly situated colleagues.

Rose was among the challengers who pressed the party’s leadership to take up a sweeping campaign finance, ethics, voting rights and lobbying law revamp, assigned the symbolically significant HR 1 bill number, as a first order of business this Congress. House members passed it on a party-line vote, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has lived up to his promise to block it.

The policy tenets of the overhaul, and GOP efforts against them, may prove pivotal in Rose’s race and other 2020 contests that will determine which party controls the House and Senate. The multiple political money scandals, including charges of foreign influence against associates of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and a separate conviction against another Trump attorney, Michael Cohen, have shined a spotlight on the darker corners of campaign contributions, potentially ripening voters’ interest in a wholesale political overhaul along the scale of the 1970s post-Watergate agenda.

“I’m going to keep talking about it. I’m going to keep hammering away at home at it,” Rose said, his voice booming, in a hallway outside the House chamber.

He and other Democrats say they can’t get traction on other issues because, in their view, well-financed industries can put their thumbs on a legislative scale, tipping the balance in their favor with campaign donations and lobbyists. That’s a frequent refrain among Democratic presidential candidates, with Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders all issuing campaign finance and anti-corruption blueprints.

“To get action on these other issues, we need to address these structural issues,” said another freshman Democrat, Jason Crow of Colorado, who flipped a seat previously held by a Republican, Rep. Mike Coffman. “I absolutely will be running on this again, and it will be a prominent part of my campaign.”

Running on the issues included in HR 1 does give Democrats something to point to in the face of the House’s impeachment inquiry of Trump. It serves as a counterpoint to the allegations of corruption and shows that Democrats are trying to do something but can’t because of a stalemate in the GOP-led Senate, party operatives say.

“It really does tangle Republicans up in knots trying to explain their opposition to these common-sense measures,” said Doug Thornell, a former senior aide to Democrats’ Senate and House campaign arms, who leads the political consulting department at SKDKnickerbocker, a campaign services firm.

House Democrats’ mega overhaul bill, which runs hundreds of pages deep, seeks to remake the nation’s voting, campaign finance, and ethics and lobbying laws and to shore up security at ballot boxes. The overhaul would create an optional public financing system, providing candidates who agree to accept no more than $200 per contributor with $6 in public funds for every $1 raised. The public funds would come from fees and fines imposed for corporate or individual malfeasance. 

 

The measure also would require lobbying organizations that engage in certain types of political expenditures to disclose more information about their donors; those groups say it would have a chilling effect on their political engagement.

Partisan battle lines

Republican critics such as McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is up for reelection next year, argue that voters do not want public dollars going to political campaigns.

“I believe we can actually win elections against people who vote for this turkey,” McConnell said, referring to the Democrats’ overhaul bill, earlier this year.

GOP operatives say voters put myriad other issues ahead of political reform: health care, jobs and the economy, infrastructure projects, gun policy and abortion. But Democrats make the pitch that all those issues, as well as climate change, labor and education policy, are intertwined with the need for a political overhaul.

“I do not meet a single person who is happy with the idea that people and corporations can spend an unlimited amount of money in secret to influence our elections,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who won a seat previously held by a Republican in 2018, said during a news conference 200 days after House passage of the overhaul. “I am 100 percent confident that the U.S. Senate will pass HR 1, either this Senate or a Senate that will be elected by candidates who run on this issue.”

It’s difficult to predict precisely how voters in 2020 will prioritize a political overhaul and whether it will be a determining factor in how they cast their ballots. The regular poll by YouGov asking voters to rank the importance of policy matters does not ask about this, for example.

But there is evidence that in the Trump era it’s on the rise.

“My sense of it is this is ranking relatively high, higher than it has in past years, as a national issue,” said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and a political science professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

A majority of Americans, 65 percent, said new laws could be effective in reducing the role of money in politics, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year. In that same poll, 61 percent of respondents said “significant changes” are needed in the fundamental “design and structure” of the American government to make it work.

Taking it on the road

Some Senate challengers have infused their stump speeches and video spots with the rhetoric of an overhaul. Democrat Mark Kelly, who is running to challenge GOP Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, said in a video announcing his candidacy earlier this year: “Partisanship and polarization and gerrymandering and corporate money have ruined our politics, and it’s divided us.”

McSally’s reelection race is rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections.

Kelly, like both Rose and Malinowski and a growing number of Democrats, has taken a largely symbolic pledge to reject campaign donations from the PACs of corporations. Challengers rarely receive such funds anyway.

Such pledges can provide a marker for candidates and incumbents to signal to voters where they stand on the broader issue of a political overhaul.

Sara Gideon, a Maine Democrat seeking to oust Republican Sen. Susan Collins, has taken the no-corporate PAC pledge, as has Democrat Cal Cunningham of North Carolina, who is running to face off against Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican. The North Carolina Senate race is rated a Toss-up, while Maine Senate is rated Tilts Republican, according to Inside Elections.

Still, taking such symbolic no-PAC pledges doesn’t leave Democratic candidates immune to scrutiny of their political money. Gideon this summer acknowledged, for example, that her state leadership PAC had violated campaign finance law in reimbursing her for contributions to other committees.

With impeachment as the backdrop, overhaul groups such as End Citizens United and Public Citizen have amped up their advocacy in preparation for a potentially sweeping slate of overhaul measures to come.

“We are making sure it’s clear that this is a top priority,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen, a liberal group.

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