Policy

Democrats Go Into 2019 With Ethics Blazing

Pelosi, Sarbanes tease dark money overhaul as the party’s grand opening salvo

Campaign finance is high on Democrats’ agenda. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi rolled out some details last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A collection of House Democrats is working behind the scenes to tee up the party’s first order of business in the new Congress: a big overhaul of campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes offered a sneak peak Friday of what will likely be christened HR 1 in the 116th Congress. Instead of starting from scratch, the bill will draw from numerous existing proposals — including some that have languished for years during GOP control.

Though short on specifics, the pair revealed that the package will draw from an existing voting rights measure (HR 2978) and a proposed change in federal ethics laws that would require disclosure of presidential tax returns. Sarbanes, who leads the party’s Democracy Reform Task Force and has been working on the measure for months, called it a once in a generation opportunity to overhaul the nation’s political system. It also will offer Democrats a template as they head into the 2020 presidential campaigns. President Donald Trump, for example, has refused to release his tax returns.

“It’s pretty basic, but these are transformative reforms that we’re putting forward,” Sarbanes told reporters during a news conference Friday with Pelosi and several newly elected House Democrats whose campaigns highlighted ethics and campaign finance proposals.

The measure could easily pass the House, but likely along party lines. And even some of the package’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who led a Supreme Court challenge to a 2002 campaign finance overhaul, is likely to quash it in his chamber.

A McConnell spokesman, David Popp, said in a Friday email that he was “not sure if the Leader has even had an opportunity to review” the House Democrats’ blueprint.

Senate spoiler

Still, Pelosi and some of the incoming freshmen lawmakers said they believe the proposal speaks to voters in both parties, even as it lacks support from GOP lawmakers.

Tom Malinowski, who defeated five-term GOP incumbent Leonard Lance in New Jersey’s 7th District, said that based on his discussions on the campaign trail, Republican voters want more disclosure of so-called dark political money, something the HR 1 measure aims to do.

“This is bipartisan when it comes to the American people,” he said, adding that the question remains whether it will garner two-party support over in the Senate.

Pelosi sounded optimistic. “As the public observes this HR 1 agenda going forward, we believe it will have great support and that message won’t be lost on the Senate or on the president of the United States.”

For his part, Sarbanes said the measure was not being built for McConnell but for the American people.

Advocacy groups that focus on campaign finance and ethics matters said they were buoyed by the new details Friday and House Democrats’ continued pledge to make it a top priority in the next Congress.

“That HR 1 will be a sweeping set of pro-democracy reforms is an encouraging sign that the new Congress has its priorities in line with the will of the people,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, in a statement.

The eventual measure is likely to include a bill (HR 6239) that would require more disclosures for political spending by corporations, labor unions and super PACs, among others — as well as a Sarbanes’ bill (HR 20) that would establish tax credits for Americans who make small-dollar campaign contributions.

The overhaul package will also include measures to “strengthen oversight of lobbyists and foreign agents,” according to a two-page summary provided to reporters.

‘Democracy problems’

Given the scope of the legislation, the main committees to shape the package will likely be House Administration, House Judiciary and House Oversight and Government Reform. Other panels, such as Ways and Means, are also expected to have a role, say outside advocates who are working to influence the forthcoming bill.

“This bold, comprehensive set of reforms will make it easier to vote, end the dominance of big money in our politics, and ensure elected officials are working in the public interest,” said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, a campaign finance overhaul group, in a statement. End Citizens United and more than 100 other outside groups are pushing for the overhaul through a new coalition called the Declaration for American Democracy Coalition.

Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance overhaul advocate who runs Democracy 21, said the package will “lay down a marker for the reform agenda.” But he doesn’t expect America’s “democracy problems” to be fixed overnight.

“This is the beginning of a process; this process is going to take three to five years,” Wertheimer said.

“The question then becomes: That’s Act 1; what’s Act 2?” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a bipartisan group that advocates for campaign finance overhauls.

McGehee added that she believes there are supporters in both parties to do something to limit the influence of big donors and to alleviate the burden on lawmakers to raise ever more campaign arsenals. In the 2018 midterm elections, for example, a record amount, at least $5.2 billion, was spent on political campaigns, according to a preliminary estimate from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“I know there are Republicans who want to do political reform,” McGehee said. To get such measures enacted, she said, “You’re going to need people from both parties.”

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