Congress will consider a sweeping democracy reform package in the first days of the Biden administration.
Congressional Democrats are prioritizing campaign finance reform and voting rights with a sweeping bill being praised by progressive groups and advocates for electoral reform.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Tuesday that the upper chamber will consider the For the People Act before any other bill, designating it as S.1. Democrats in the House made a similar move earlier this month. The bill aims to tackle corporate influence, “dark money,” foreign attempts to influence American elections and voter suppression practices in the wake of the 2020 election cycle, which broke campaign spending records.
GETTING MONEY OUT OF POLITICS
Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, who has written extensively on the topic of campaign finance, called the bill “an incredibly important piece of comprehensive democracy reform,” in an email to ATR NEWS.
Among the provisions included in the proposed legislation’s campaign finance section, the For the People Act would make a public-financing program available to congressional candidates for the first time.
“In my view, the most important parts give candidates a realistic chance to fund campaigns with small contributions only,” Lessig said. “That could liberate Congress from special interest funding.”
The bill stipulates that candidates who opt into the program will be paid from a “Freedom from Influence Fund,” which is to be “funded solely by an assessment paid on federal fines, penalties and settlements for certain tax crimes and corporate malfeasance.”
The legislation would implement the DISCLOSE Act, a bill first proposed as a 2010 response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which granted corporations the ability to spend unlimited sums on independent expenditures. The DISCLOSE Act would require political nonprofits to disclose the identities of individuals who donate more than $10,000 to the organizations. The bill would also mandate that the dark money groups file disclosure reports with the Federal Elections Commission every time they make elections-related expenditures in excess of $10,000.
Under loopholes in current law, 501(c)(4) organizations are exempt from disclosure requirements, which means they can spend unlimited sums of money from completely anonymous sources so long as their spending isn’t coordinated with campaigns. In 2020, dark money groups spent more than $750 million on ads and political contributions, according to a report released by the Wesleyan Media Project. The For the People Act solidifies the definition of “coordination” to enforce the barrier dividing outside groups such as super PACs and dark money groups and campaign committees.
To ensure its provisions are enforced, the bill would change the number of FEC commissioners from six to five “in order to break gridlock.” The commission is currently required to have no more than three members from each party, a requirement which has rendered the oversight board ineffectual for decades.
The bill also responds to a 2016 campaign by Russian nationals to sway the election in favor of former President Donald Trump by spreading disinformation and discouraging communities of color from voting. If the bill becomes law, digital publishers would be required to disclose the identities of all advertisers who spend more than $500 on political content. Any effort to dissuade eligible voters from casting ballots or registering to vote, including the airing or publication of advertisements to that effect, would also become unlawful.
Schumer introduced the bill along with Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and the bill’s author, Sen. Jeff Merkely (D-Ore.). The announcement came less than a week after a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, spurred by baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election promulgated by Trump after his electoral defeat.
Congress’ decision to prioritize the bill also comes eight months after the death of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a storied voting rights advocate and civil rights leader who authored the original For the People Act in 2019 along with Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). The proposed law aims to make the purging of voter rolls illegal, protecting voters from being unregistered if they do not meet certain arbitrary thresholds. It would also institute nationwide voter registration practices, including automatic, same-day and online voter registration.
The bill includes a section on ethics reforms, which would tighten disclosure requirements for lobbyists and codify parts of an executive order signed by President Joe Biden Wednesday. It expands the definition of lobbying to include “counseling in support of lobbying contacts” to crack down on “shadow lobbying” by former government officials. The section also requires presidential candidates to disclose 10 years of tax returns and prohibits the President and Vice President from maintaining business contracts with the federal government.
A PARTISAN BATTLE ON THE HORIZON
The bill is supported by a broad coalition of progressive groups under the banner of the Declaration for American Democracy. Its nearly 180 members include People’s Action, MoveOn.org, the League of Conservation Voters and the Service Employees International Union. The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC that took $300,000 from dark money group Sixteen Thirty Fund, one of the left’s largest dark money groups, reportedly also supports the bill.
Despite the enthusiasm from Democrats, Schumer will face an uphill battle to actually pass the bill. In 2019, an earlier version of the bill passed in the House along partisan lines. Not a single Republican voted for the bill, and it was never introduced in the then-majority Republican Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called that iteration of the bill “a radical half-baked socialist proposal.”
Even though Democrats now control a slim Senate majority with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as tie-breaker, Schumer will need the support of at least 10 Senate Republicans to avoid a Republican filibuster and pass the bill. Some Democrats have floated the idea of killing the legislative filibuster and forcing the bill through with a simple majority, but Schumer has yet to commit to such a step.
No matter what happens in the Senate, the House may consider the For the People Act as early as Jan. 28, the HuffPost reported.