WASHINGTON — (Updated 5 p.m.) On a party line vote, House Democrats on Friday approved sweeping changes to campaign, ethics, and election laws that among other things would establish a public-funding mechanism for federal campaigns, restore voting rights to felons released from prison, and make it easier to register to vote.
The “For the People Act” is the top priority of House Democrats and passed, 234-193, over strong objections from Republicans who argued that it would steer taxpayer money into Congressional campaign coffers to the benefit of the Democratic Party. It is not expected to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pronounced it dead on arrival.
Still, Connecticut Democrats in the House savored their victory. All five members voted for it.
“Today’s vote is a win for Democracy,” said Representative John Larson.
The bill, he said, “puts the electoral power back in the hands of the people” rather than ceding it to corporate interests. Larson noted that he has fought for many of the reforms over the past decade. He introduced the Fair Elections Now Act in 2008 to provide public financing for Congressional campaigns through a federal match program. Larson was also chairman of the Task Force on Election Reform in 2012 and 2013.
Rep. Joe Courtney said in a statement issued after the vote that it is critical for Congress to take action “to restore the promise of our nation’s democracy” he says has suffered from a focus on special interests rather than the public’s interests.
“There are a litany of concerns wearing away at Americans’ confidence in the federal government,” he said. “That’s why the new House Majority made the For the People Act a top priority in this new session of Congress. “
Rep. Jim Himes posted on Facebook that passage of the bill was a step toward fixing the nation’s electoral system that was harmed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision gutting campaign finance reforms his Republican predecessor Chris Shays had championed.
“I just voted to pass House Bill 1 (H.R. 1). The For the People Act. This act addresses campaign finance reform, election access and government ethics. Ever since the disastrous Citizens United decision, I’ve heard time and again from my constituents that restoring their voice in our democracy by fixing our electoral system is a top priority. Today, we made progress toward that goal,” he said.
The bill was debated over the past few days in the House where dozens of amendments were considered. Republicans argued that many of the provisions are flawed but their overarching concern is that it would supersede state government oversight of elections and use taxpayer funds for congressional campaigns. The public financing mechanism would provide a six-to-one funding match to campaigns.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy railed against the bill as floor debate came to a close Friday morning.
“This new Democrat socialist majority wants the federal government to interfere in our free and fair elections,” he said complaining that it had not been properly vetted. Among a litany of complaints he cited was that restoring voting rights to ex-prisoners would include felons convicted of voter fraud.
Arkansas Representative Steve Womack, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, opposed the bill saying it “dismantles the foundation of our democracy.”
Womack complained it would take power away from states and local communities, restrict the constitutional rights of voters and force taxpayers to subsidize candidates they may not support.
“It is bad policy that is designed to serve the Democratic Party and force the American people to foot the bill,” he said.
Among other provisions, the bill would make Election Day a holiday for federal workers, require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register as voters when they turn 18.
Himes broke from the delegation on one amendment – voting “present” to a provision offered by Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna Pressley to lower the voting age to 16 rather than vote in favor. He explained on Twitter: “Seems like a big deal. Zero facts. Zero research. Zero consultation w/constituents. So did something I’ve never done before and voted “present”. I hope that was respectful of your collective opinions.”
Courtney offered a summary of key provisions in the bill:
Ensuring Clean and Fair Elections
Automatic voter registration – requires state election officials to automatically register to vote any eligible, unregistered citizens while also protecting those who are ineligible to vote and mistakenly registered from prosecution.
Promotes online registration – requires states to make available online voter registration, correction, and party affiliation designation.
Reaffirms commitment to restoring Voting Rights Act – declares that Congress finds that the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder ushered in a new era of voter suppression and that, per the ruling, Congress should restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act by updating the formula for determining which jurisdictions are subject to federal preclearance.
Paper ballots – requires voting systems in every state to use individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballots that are counted by hand or with an optical recognition device.
Ends partisan gerrymandering – requires states to adopt independent redistricting commissions for the purposes of drawing Congressional districts instead of allowing politicians to pick their voters.
Election security measures – requires the Department of Homeland Security to designate election infrastructure as critical and assess threats to the system at least 180 days prior to a federal election; creates a National Commission to Protect United States Democratic Institutions to counter threats; and requires testing of voting systems at nine months before a federal election.
Campaign Finance Reforms
Foreign money ban – strengthens the ban on foreign money in elections by prohibiting foreign nationals from participating in decision-making about contributions or expenditures by corporations and other entities.
Unmasks dark money – requires super PACs, 501(c)4 groups and other organizations spending money in elections to disclose donors who contribute more than $10,000 and forbids organizations to transfer money to keep the identity of the contributor secret.
Honest ads – requires digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter to maintain a public database of political ad purchase requests of more than $500 and directs online media outlets to implement measures to prevent ads being directly or indirectly purchased by foreign nationals.
Supports ending Citizens United – affirms that the Constitution should be amended to clarify Congress and the States have the authority to regulate campaign contributions and expenditures, nullifying the Citizens United decision.
Publicly financed small donor match – establishes a voluntary small dollar matching system, funded by wealthy tax cheats and corporate lawbreakers, on donations up to $200 for House candidates who demonstrate broad-based support and reject high-dollar contributions and provides similar voluntary public matching funds for small contributions to participating presidential candidates.
Expands authorized campaign expenses – allows candidates to use campaign funds to pay for child care, elder care, and health insurance premiums in an effort to make it possible for candidates with modest means to run for public office.
Ethics and Accountability
Foreign agents – increases resources for the Foreign Agents Registration Act office within the Department of Justice, and creates a foreign agents investigation and enforcement unit.
Expands lobbying disclosure requirements – requires those that provide counseling in support of lobbying contracts to register as under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Presidential appointees – requires all Presidential appointees to recuse themselves from any matter in which a party is the President, the President’s spouse, or any entity in which the President or the President’s spouse has a substantial interest. Also requires individuals nominated or appointed to Senate-confirmed positions and other senior-level positions to disclose contributions by, solicited by or made on behalf of an individual.
Presidential conflicts of interest – requires the President and Vice President to file a new financial disclosure statement within 30 days of being sworn into office and prohibits both the President and Vice President from contracting with the U.S. government.
White House Ethics – requires all ethics waivers granted to those in the Executive Branch be disclosed to the Office of Government Ethics and the public.
Taxes and the President – requires sitting Presidents and Vice Presidents, as well as candidates for President and Vice President, to make their tax returns public.
Slowing the special interest revolving door – prohibits senior federal officials from leaving government service and attempting to influence employees in their former agency or office for two years; creates a similar “cooling off” time period for federal procurement officers who leave government service from accepting any compensation from a contractor to which the officer awarded a contract.
Congressional conflicts of interest – forbids Members of Congress from serving on for-profit, corporate boards and codifies rules prohibiting Members, their family and staff from using their official position to benefit their own financial interests.
Ends taxpayer-settled harassment lawsuits in Congress – prohibits Members of Congress from using taxpayer funds to settle any case of employment discrimination that the Member was personally involved in.