'Restores the people's faith': House passes a broad anti-corruption and voting rights bill
Ledyard King, USA TODAY
Create automatic voter registration. Force presidents to make their tax returns public. Turn over congressional redistricting to independent commissions. Bar federal lawmakers from settling discrimination cases with public money.
The House passed a sweeping anti-corruption and government ethics package Friday that would fundamentally reshape how campaigns are run, how elections are conducted and how officeholders conduct themselves.
The measure, known as the For The People Act or H.R. 1, is a collection of what Democrats consider good-government proposals, some of which have been years in the crafting.
Many Democrats ran – and won – on a platform that called for weeding out government corruption, curbing the influence of big donors, and restoring voter protections to minority communities.
The measure was approved 234-193 along party lines.
"H.R. 1 restores the people's faith that government works for the public interest, the people's interest, not the special interest," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday morning on the steps of the U.S. Capitol surrounded by members of her caucus. It "is fundamental to a democracy that people believe that actions taken here will be in their interest."
The bill has no chance to become law. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it's a "terrible bill" that he won't give any floor time.
GOP critics say the measure is an unconstitutional maneuver that would enable voter fraud, saddle taxpayers with unnecessary costs and tilt elections in favor of Democrats.
"This bill is a Democrat push to elect more Democrats and to put more money into the pockets of members of Congress and anyone running for election ... under the guise of campaign finance reform," said Rodney Davis, R-Ill., the top Republican on the Committee on House Administration, which handled the bill.
Here are some of the major components of the bill:
Expanding the voting pool
Aside from voting rights, the bill seeks to increase voter turnout by expanding early voting, allowing same-day registration and requiring states to set up automatic registration for federal elections for eligible voters.
The measure also would require states to automatically register felons once they've completed their sentences. Currently 12 states – Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming – bar automatic restoration.
And it would require states to permit voters to register on Election Day, a requirement Republicans say would make verification harder and lead to increased fraud.
A proposal by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., that would have allowed 16-year-olds the chance to cast a ballot in federal elections, was defeated Thursday 305-126.
McConnell said the moves are unnecessary if the goal is to increase voter participation.
"What is the problem that we're trying to solve here? We had the highest turnout last year since 1966 in an off-year election," he told reporters Wednesday. "People are flooding to the polls ... because they're animated. They're interested. This is a solution in search of a problem. What it really is is bill designed to make it more likely that Democrats win more often."
Curbing special interests, big donors
The bill attempts to curtail the power of special interests and large donors, a long-sought goal ever since the Supreme Court paved the way in 2010 for unlimited campaign giving in its Citizens United ruling.
Congressional candidates who receive at least $50,000 from small donors would have those donations of $200 or less matched.
The bill also requires political parties to divulge their large donors, requires presidential inaugural committees to list any donor giving more than $1,000, bans foreign donations to federal campaigns, and requires disclosure of those behind online political ads.
And it would give the Federal Election Commission more power to discipline campaign committees that violate rules by reducing the number of commissioners from six to five (with no more than two from the same party). Supporters of the change argue many violations go unpunished because the current makeup – three Democrats and three Republicans – often leads to deadlock.
Requires presidential tax returns
President Donald Trump would no longer be able to keep his tax returns under wraps if the bill becomes law.
The measure would require presidents, vice presidents and candidates for the White House to release their annual tax filings. It also would require the president and the vice president to file a financial disclosure form within 30 days of taking office.
Trump's refusal to release his returns, which would presumably disclose information about his business empire, has frustrated Democrats who want the president to follow tradition in releasing them.
"President Trump is now governing while also owning a business with international investments," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., who has pushed the proposal. "The Constitution faces unprecedented threats due to this arrangement."
Trump has declined to release his tax returns – despite earlier promises he would – saying they're under audit.
Mandates independent redistricting
States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years. Only four – Arizona, California, Idaho and Washington – leave the task of redistricting to an independent panel.
The For the People Act would require every state (except the seven that have only one House seat) to appoint an independent commission.
The bill is being voted on only two months after the U.S. Supreme Court decided it would take up cases of potential gerrymandering in two states: North Carolina and Maryland.
The concept appears to have overwhelming public support. Nearly three of every voters (73 percent) support removing partisan bias from redistricting, "even if it means their preferred political party will win fewer seats," according to the Campaign Legal Center.
Settling discrimination cases
When Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold was accused in 2015 of sexual harassment, the Corpus Christi Republican agreed to pay $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle the claim before resigning from office.
A provision in the bill the House is considering Friday would prohibit lawmakers from doing just that: using public funds to settle any claims of discrimination or harassment.
Farenthold was one of several Democratic and Republican lawmakers accused of harassment that year though it's unclear how many of them may have also reached a financial settlement with their accusers.
Farenthold agreed to repay the money from his own pocket but never did, saying a law governing lawmakers' conduct appeared to make it "illegal and unethical" to do so.
Restoring voting rights
One provision in the bill would restrict the voter-roll purges by states that civil rights groups say disproportionately affect minority and low-income residents.
Another of the bill's many provisions calls for Congress to improve voting protections that civil rights groups say have been eroded, notably by a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
That ruling in Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder threw out a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring states and other jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to obtain “pre-clearance” from federal officials before making election changes.
Although the legislation to restore that provision, the Voting Rights Advancement Act is being handled as a separate bill, Democratic leaders consistently cite addressing the Shelby decision as a top priority. The bill proposed by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would help create a record of potential voter suppression.
The move to restore voting rights comes amid accusations of Republican voter suppression, especially in southern states where civil rights advocates say access to the ballot box remains difficult for minorities.
"Every citizen should have an equal vote," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon.