The first bill Democrats plan to introduce and pass if they win control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 6 will be a comprehensive package of campaign finance, voting rights, redistricting and ethics reforms.
The presumptive H.R. 1 will be based on a House resolution introduced in 2018 by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and co-sponsored by 165 Democratic House members, including the entire party leadership.
“Reform is going to be the first thing out of the gate,” he said.
The bill will include the creation of a small-donor public financing system for congressional elections, the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, nationwide automatic voter registration, nonpartisan redistricting reforms for congressional elections and a host of ethics reforms to rein in corruption in Congress and the executive branch.
A coalition of 100 groups called the Declaration for American Democracy — including broad-based membership organizations like the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, Indivisible, Public Citizen and Common Cause — endorsed this democracy reform package as the first priority for a Democratic House on Tuesday. The coalition will organize its members to support the passage of this legislation if Democrats win control of the House.
“The same people who spent 2017 organizing to defeat Trumpcare and spent 2018 organizing to build the blue wave will next turn their focus to organizing to pressure their own elected officials ― Republicans and Democrats alike ― to actually make democracy work,” said Ezra Levin, a co-executive director of Indivisible, a grassroots group of Democratic activists that sprang up after the 2016 elections.
The endorsement from those organizations is just the latest sign of support for this legislative push. More than 100 Democratic House candidates signed a letter to the House of Representatives declaring their intention to enact comprehensive reform of voting, campaign finance and ethics in Washington.
“We are determined to reform the system and spark this restoration of American confidence should we be given the humble honor of serving our respective districts in the United States Congress,” the letter reads.
Sarbanes has been the leading proponent of campaign finance reform in the Democratic caucus for six years. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) appointed Sarbanes to head the party’s Democracy Reform Task Force at the beginning of 2017. Since then, he has worked with Democratic lawmakers to craft comprehensive legislation to tackle as many elements of democracy reform as possible and campaigned for candidates who would vote to pass such a bill in 2019.
His efforts have included discussing and getting support for campaign finance reform legislation that he began developing six years ago. He has wrapped in legislation by other lawmakers on other fronts, such as dramatically expanding and protecting voting rights and instituting ethics and lobbying reforms to prevent corruption, abuse of power and the kind of conflicts of interest that have plagued Donald Trump’s presidency.
“We have a system of campaign finance that takes us back to the Gilded Age and the robber baron era, a voting system that takes us back to the poll tax and voter suppression era and a redistricting system that allows representatives to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit that promotes campaign finance reform. “The very health of our democracy is at stake in this fight to repair our political system for all Americans.”
The proposed voting rights reforms include reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, with constitutional language to restore federal preclearance (stripped by the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision) for changes to voting laws in some jurisdictions. The bill would also institute automatic voter registration across the country and provide funding and expanded oversight power to the Election Assistance Commission. And the measure would require that nonpartisan commissions redraw congressional district maps.
Ethics reforms in the proposed bill would cover the executive and legislative branches. The measure would include extending the cooling-off period before a government official may become a lobbyist, expanding conflict-of-interest laws to cover the president and vice president, give more compliance and oversight power to the executive branch’s Office of Government Ethics and bar lawmakers from sitting on corporate boards.
The planned legislation would create a public financing system for congressional elections and provide matching funds for small-dollar donations raised by participating candidates. This part of the proposal comes from the Sarbanes’ Government by the People Act. Additional reforms would include increasing disclosure for dark money and digital advertising, strengthening laws prohibiting coordination between candidates and super PACs and barring lobbyists from bundling campaign contributions.
Sarbanes said he believes the planned legislation ― and the Democrats’ commitment to pass it ― marks a defining moment to rebrand the party and tell voters what it will do if it controls the levers of government.
“Every time you choose to give us the gavel, this is what we’re going to go to,” he said. “We’re going to try to fix this democracy. Give it to us in the House, and we will pass a broad democracy reform package. If you like what you see, then give us the gavel in the Senate. And if you want that to be signed into law and you want to really start to rebuild this democracy, then put someone in the White House who will pick up their pen and sign this legislation into law.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that the proposed bill would give more oversight power to the Office of Congressional Ethics.