The House on Friday passed a massive voting rights, campaign-finance and ethics reform package — a centerpiece of the new Democratic majority’s agenda.
The bill, known as H.R. 1 and dubbed the For the People Act by Democrats, was approved on a party-line 234-193 vote.
The measure makes far-reaching changes to the country’s electoral and campaign-finance system, along with ethic reforms that target President Donald Trump and his administration.
“H.R. 1 restores the people’s faith that government works for the public interest, the people’s interests, not the special interests,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news conference before the vote.
The legislation includes a national expansion of early voting, redistricting reform, automatic voter registration and stricter disclosure rules for a bevy of political activities. One particular ethics provision would mandate presidential and vice presidential candidates to publicly disclose 10 years of tax returns — a measure taken after Trump has refused to do so despite decades of precedent.
The bill has little chance of becoming law in the face of stiff opposition from the GOP-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this weekthat it would get no floor time “because I get to decide what we vote on.” Trump has also threatened to veto the bill, in the unlikely event it will make it to the president’s desk.
The measure’s passage also comes after a rocky week for the Democratic Caucus, which struggled with how to address the controversy surrounding freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who was accused of making anti-Semitic remarks.
Still, the bill’s passage fulfills a major campaign promise for many House Democrats, who embraced a theme of cleaning up Washington during the midterm elections.
“It is no coincidence that the largest freshman class since Watergate is also the class that is leading and pushing on this critical reform measure,” freshman Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) said at a Thursday news conference. “We are the class born of voters’ frustrations with a broken system.”
Crow was among the 47 freshmen Democrats who had signed an October 2018 letter organized by the group End Citizens United that called for campaign finance and ethics reform to be the first item Democrats take up in the 116th Congress.
Each faction of the Democratic Caucus is able to claim victory with the bill.
Liberal members of the party touting campaign-finance reforms found themselves going viral, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-.N.Y.) video from an H.R. 1 hearing approaching nearly 40 million views on Twitter.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia offered his support for the bill with a fiery floor speech tying its passage to his lifelong battle for civil rights. “This vote is an opportunity to be on the right side of history,” the civil rights icon said. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? The time has arrived to tear down the barrier to the ballot box.”
Moderate and conservative Blue Dog Democrats got their own bite at the apple, working with Democratic leadership to change a public financing program so that it was funded not from tax revenue but through fees generated by fines for corporate malfeasance.
“Our freshmen members flagged for us that this would be an issue that’s difficult for them in their districts, and would be difficult for many of the Blue Dog districts, to be seen to use taxpayer dollars to fund campaigns,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, co-chair of the coalition, said in an interview. “We held off cosponsoring the bill [until a change was made] and that shows a level of unity that the Blue Dogs are willing to use in the Congress to improve legislation.”
Even the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus took home their own prize: the first amendment considered, and passed, under the House’s new “20/20 rule,” which gives special preference to amendments sponsored by 20 members from each party.
“It is a good amendment,” Rep. Tom Suozzi of New York, caucus co-chair, said of his amendment torequire an FEC audit after every federal election to determine if foreign money was spent. “It’s not going to change the world. But it’s a solid single with bipartisan support, and we need to get more of those singles in the future.”
Democrats also largely stuck together and defeated a motion to recommit, a procedural move that offers the minority a chance to offer a final amendment and has embarrassed the caucus on other recent bills.
Republicans were similarly united, though in opposition.
“A vote for this bill is nothing more than a vote to put millions of dollars into campaigns for every person who serves in this institution,” Rep. Rodney Davis, one of the chief critics of the bill, said Thursday of the small dollar public matching program. The Illinois lawmaker introduced a steady parade of House Republicans to rail against the bill on the House floor over several days of debate.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy rolled out a video arguing the bill would allow “the government to interfere in our free and fair elections.” McCarthy took to the floor Friday to give a speech condemning the bill for not addressing ballot harvesting.
McConnell was perhaps the most vocal critic of the bill. He wrote an op-eddecrying the measure as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and devoted several floor speeches to what he called a “power grab,” helping galvanize House Republicans in opposition of the bill.
“Not enough can be said about the Senate majority leader and his involvement,” a senior House Republican aide said. “Most people were going to vote against it regardless, but I think his involvement in raising the profile of the issue inspired a lot of our folks to be more involved.”
Democrats chafed at McConnell’s comments. “One senator said this is a power grab,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who shepherded the bill from her perch as chair of the House Administration Committee. “Yes it is. It is a power grab for the American people.”
The bill drew opposition from many GOP-leaning outside groups, like the Chamber of Commerce. But the ACLU also voiced its concern about certain provisions in the bill, saying they are “unconstitutionally burdening political speech.”
House Democrats are expected to slice off parts of the bill and put them up for future votes as separate legislation in an effort to get more narrowly tailored reforms through, though even that will be difficult.
“People aren’t taking this seriously because it won’t get through the Senate,” Adam Brandon, president of the libertarian-leaning FreedomWorks and an opponent of the bill, said in an interview. “I’m not worried about it this year, next year. I’m worried about this in the next five or six years.”
The fight over campaign-finance reform and voting rights is also sure to land on the campaign trail in 2020, with both parties believing they can win the coming messaging battle.
Republicans argued that giving federal workers a day off or pushing public financing of elections will be a negative for Democrats. “This will be a political issue for people who are running in competitive districts, I guarantee it,” Davis said of the public-financing provision. “Who wants more money in politics?”
But even moderate Democrats are skeptical the attacks will stick.
“They’re gonna beat us up for trying to fix campaign finance? They’re going to beat us up for righting the wrongs of voter suppression?” Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) said. “I hope they do that. That will be fun to have them do that.”
Democrats see their success in the midterms as proof that their government-reform message will win the day, just as Trump’s 2016 victory suggested voters are desperate for change in Washington.
“In a sense, [voters] wanted to clean this place up and they found the most drastic solution you can think of,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the original sponsor of the bill, said in an interview. “And then they discovered he wasn’t interested in it. Their anger still hasn’t been solved.”