Congress

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls out dark money ‘shaping’ questions about reform bill

Ethics expert calls it a ‘fox guarding the henhouse situation’

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., attends a House Financial Services Committee organizational meeting in Rayburn Building on Jan. 30. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In a hearing about government ethics, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turned the spotlight on her colleagues in the room.

Can members of Congress finance their campaigns with the aid of corporate PACs representing industries like fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals, and then legislate according to the interests of those industries?

Yes, members of a panel convened by the House Oversight and Reform Committee confirmed.

And could the power of special interests be animating some of the questions being asked by members of the Oversight Committee? 

“We have these influences existing in this body, which means that these influences are here in this committee, shaping the questions that are being asked of you all right now,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Would you say that that’s correct?”

Yes, answered Walter M. Shaub Jr., former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics under President Barack Obama, a witness at the hearing.

The hearing was dedicated to HR 1 — the “For the People Act of 2019” — a catch-all campaign finance, ethics, lobbying and voting overhaul introduced as a symbolic first piece of legislation after Democrats gained control of the House.

The bill includes automatic voter registration, super PAC restrictions, public matching funds for small-dollar donations and tighter ethics rules around the behavior of public servants, among other reforms.

Ocasio-Cortez’s line of questioning followed several Republican members of the committee levying criticisms against the reforms laid out in HR 1, though she did not cite lawmakers by name as offering pushback shaped by special interests.

The moment stuck out to Delaney Marsco, an ethics expert and legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a D.C. good government watchdog group, because it helped illustrate the obstacles to passing laws like HR 1.

“It’s a lot harder for folks to get behind get behind ethics reform when they implicate their own practices or hurt their ability to win elections,” Marsco said. “It’s kind of a fox guarding the henhouse situation.”

Among the most strident opponents of the bill, Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on the committee, said it “reads more like a wish list for Democrats than an honest attempt at reform.”

Jordan represents the 4th District in Ohio. Civil rights groups and voters led by the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the state’s congressional map as gerrymandered and unconstitutional last year, while HR 1 puts forward a proposal to create independent, bipartisan redistricting commissions tasked with drawing congressional maps in a way that advantages neither party, Marsco pointed out.

Some committee Republicans also voiced opposition to a provision in HR 1 striking a prohibition that prevents the Internal Revenue Service from investigating so-called “dark money” 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations on privacy grounds. The change would allow for more scrutiny of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative-leaning social welfare group linked to Charles and David Koch that boosts Republicans, though the provision could also impact Majority Forward, a 501(c)(4) aligned with wealthy Democratic donors.

The bill is a top priority in the House, and though the 35-day partial government shutdown stalled its advancement, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a floor vote could happen as soon as February or early March.

But the legislation faces long odds in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the package of reforms a party “power grab” last week.

“When people for one reason or another are resistant to common sense reforms to help more people vote, to involve more people in the decision making process, that someone might think that’s a ‘power grab’… it raises some questions,” Marsco said.

Kate Ackley and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.