Congress

House Democrats ready ethics overhaul for floor vote this week

HR 1, a sweeping ethics overhaul is expected to pass along party lines, amid intense opposition from Republicans

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats, barely nine weeks into a majority they won in part with promises of an anti-corruption legislative agenda, will turn the spotlight this week to their signature campaign finance, ethics, voting and lobbying overhaul.

The House Rules Committee will take up the package Tuesday, setting the parameters for consideration on the floor. Lawmakers then will debate the measure on the House floor over the following days, with an expected vote on final passage Friday morning. Democrats and outside advocates pushing for the bill say they’ll be on high alert for GOP attempts, including amendments and motions to recommit, that could tank the overhaul.

“Americans are clamoring for bold solutions to unrig the political system,” said Michael Sozan, senior vice president of government affairs for the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, which supports the overhaul along with a coalition of more than 70 other groups. “The coalition is staying extremely vigilant, and people will be looking to see what arguments Republicans marshal on the floor next week and what amendments of theirs are made in order.”

Republicans may push amendments that focus on keeping people who are not U.S. citizens from voting and on efforts that highlight the bill’s creation of a new optional 6-to-1 public matching system to boost small campaign donations.

The bill likely will pass the House along party lines, amid intense opposition from Republicans who argue that it would impose federal control over local elections with new requirements for early voting and online voter registration nationwide. Republicans also say it could inhibit political free speech, and they criticize Democrats for rushing the bill for political reasons.

The GOP has also criticized the measure for its potential costs to taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office estimated Friday that Congress would need to appropriate nearly $2.6 billion over six years to fund the provisions in the bill.

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, which marked up the bill last week, said the CBO had “underestimated” the cost of the legislation, saying Democrats had crafted it “for the purposes of hiding costs from the taxpayers.”

“H.R. 1 is a costly bill that federalizes the nation’s election system, weakens safeguards to voting and registration practices that open the door to fraud, misuses taxpayer funds, attempts to limit free speech, and creates a shell fund of taxpayer subsidies to finance politicians’ campaigns,” Davis said in a statement sent from his spokeswoman.

A long-term effort

Every House Democrat has signed on as a co-sponsor of the 622-page bill. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are preparing their version, to be introduced by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico. Even though the GOP-led Senate is unlikely to take it up, Democrats say House consideration is the start of a multi-year effort with the bill serving as a starting point for debate during the 2020 congressional and presidential campaigns. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in particular, has led his party’s charge against the measure.

“We understand that McConnell is going to probably prevent votes on any of this in the Senate, but we have always had a longer-term game plan,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance overhaul group Democracy 21. “This effort will go into the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns. . . . I personally see this as a three- to five-year effort.”

The Center for American Progress, Democracy 21 and some 70 other mostly liberal organizations are mobilizing for the week’s focus on the bill. Organizations that rate lawmakers on how they vote will not only consider how members vote on final passage of the bill but also whether they side with Republicans on any amendments, Sozan said.

The bill would make Election Day a federal holiday and create an optional 6-to-1 public matching system for campaign donations under $200. It also would call for nonpartisan commissions to draw boundaries for congressional districts.

The measure would require same-day voter registration for all federal elections and would revamp the Federal Election Commission from a six-member panel to a five-member agency whose chairman or chairwoman and general counsel would hold greater authority to bring actions related to potential violations of political money laws.

It also would set out new guidelines for the types of behind-the-scenes advising that would require someone to register as a federal lobbyist. These guidelines are aimed at curbing the phenomenon known as “unlobbying,” or being hired to give strategic advice for clients without actually registering as a lobbyist, something common for former members of Congress. The bill would also give new investigative authority to the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act unit, which monitors foreign lobbying campaigns in the United States.

The overhaul also would give more power to the Office of Government Ethics and would tighten ethical standards that apply to officials in the executive branch, including presidents and vice presidents. It also would require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, something that had previously been standard practice in modern times until President Donald Trump, who has refused to make his public.

Sozan called the bill “historic,” especially given the widespread support among Democrats.

“There were naysayers who said this sweeping package would be too unwieldy and too controversial to pass,” he said. "It’s a huge feat, a 600-page piece of legislation that touches on so many important and hot-button issues got every [Democratic] member to sponsor it.”

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