Opinion

Democrats try to meet people where they are: mired in cynicism

Next to Trump’s unfulfilled, empty pledge to drain the swamp, HR 1 looks pretty savvy

Democrats are intent on sticking to their “For the People” message, even if they’re swimming upstream against the partial government shutdown. Above, from left, Rep. Colin Allred, Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark, and Rep. Xochitl Torres-Small hold a press conference in the Capitol on Jan. 9. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — It’s tempting, and deliciously smug, to dismiss House Democrats’ everything-but-the-kitchen-sink campaign finance, lobbying, ethics and voting overhaul bill as an overtly partisan political messaging stunt that’s doomed in the Senate and too unpolished for enactment.

The measure is all of those. But ignoring this effort outright means waving off voters’ very real perception that their democracy has been sold out to the highest campaign donors.

The clean-up-government-and-elections theme of HR 1, as House Democrats have dubbed their bill to show its priority status, will play a dominant role in the 2019-20 election cycle, as well as in this Congress, harnessing voters’ growing angst with big money in politics and perceived corporate influence over government.

Even if, as expected, the overhaul dies in the current Senate, the debate on Capitol Hill and around the country has really just begun anew.

“It truly is a momentous undertaking,” said Rep. David E. Price, a North Carolina Democrat who has long worked on political disclosure matters and is a sponsor of the newly introduced package.

“This is a once-in-a-generation blueprint for reforming our democratic system, diminishing the influence of big money in American politics … and restoring power to our people,” Price said.

Fred Wertheimer, who at 80 has been through overhaul efforts in the past, sees a long road ahead. His group, Democracy 21, is part of a coalition of more than 100 organizations that plans to keep the overhaul atop voters’ minds in the coming years.

“This issue is going to be injected into the 2020 presidential campaign and the 2020 House and Senate campaigns,” he said.

“If we get a more responsive president in 2021, we’ll be on the doorstep; if not, we’ll go on to 2022,” Wertheimer said.

The overhaul, which runs 571 pages of legislative-ese, aims to clean up corruption in the federal government and in the nation’s political campaigns. It would set up tax credits for voters who make small campaign contributions and would impose new restrictions on the revolving door between government service and the private sector.

It takes a jab at President Donald Trump, who has kept his IRS forms secret, by requiring commanders in chief to disclose their tax returns.

The overhaul would shed new light on undisclosed “dark money” donors to outside groups that play in politics. It also would erect stronger barriers between super PACs and candidates, and would require more timely disclosures of contributions and expenditures.

The plan would restore pieces of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, as well as promote online, automatic and same-day voter registration.

That’s a lot for one piece of legislation.

“We have a bill that is unlike others in the past in that it combines a series of reforms designed to fix the broken political system,” Wertheimer said.

While lawmakers may break off discrete proposals with the goal of actual enactment, Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, is planning to introduce a companion to HR 1 in his chamber in the coming weeks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, plans an offensive against the measure, and he’ll have plenty of outside backing.

David Keating, for example, president of the anti-campaign-finance-regulation group Institute for Free Speech, said the plan, as drafted, raises numerous concerns from his perspective.

“There’s just a whole host of crazy provisions in this legislation that would make criticizing government actions very, very difficult,” he said, referring to new disclosure requirements for political ads and communiques.

Keating is also troubled by the bill’s approach to revising the Federal Election Commission from the often immobilized, 3-3 Democrat-Republican ratio to a five-member panel with a more powerful chairman.

“It’s a toxic mix of enhanced enforcement power with vague provisions” that should worry even Democrats, Keating said.

That may well prove true as the bill becomes better understood, or if it appears on a path toward enactment.

But for now, the package’s power is in its breadth and its potential, and in how it speaks to voters’ alienation and agitation with the system.

“Speaking for myself and many of my freshman colleagues who I’ve spoken to over the course of our campaigns, cynicism and mistrust of Congress is at an all-time high,” said newly sworn in Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat. “It is at a tragic level.”

Republicans will face the challenge of whether, or how, to respond to that cynicism. And Trump’s unfulfilled, empty pledge to drain the swamp likely won’t suffice.

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

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