True to their word, House Democrats introduced a sweeping pro-democracy bill as their first piece of legislation in the 116h Congress. The “For the People Act,” HR 1, introduced by longtime reformer John Sarbanes and freshman Katie Hill (an Elizabeth Warren protégé) would make it easier to cast a valid vote, require presidents to disclose their tax returns, and match small donations with public funds to amplify the voice of ordinary citizens in an already noisy political arena.
With 222 Democrats already co-sponsoring HR 1, it has a good chance of passing the House. But with Mitch McConnell promising to bury it in the Senate, the bill is basically dead on arrival, not to mention the fact that President Trump would certainly veto such a measure.
Why then, should voters pay attention?
Despite broad support in public opinion polls among Republican voters, nearly all federally elected Republicans are firmly against any reforms that equalize the role of ordinary voters with corporations and billionaires. Thus, a meaningful overhaul of our democratic process won’t happen until one of three things occur:
- Democrats regain the White House and win a filibuster-proof 60 vote majority in the Senate while holding the House and maintaining their commitment to reform. This would need to look something like the late 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt commanded super-majorities that allowed him to pass sweeping reforms like the New Deal.
- Democrats win control of the White House, win a senate majority and get rid of the filibuster, and hold the House. This could happen, but it would take a real commitment to the basic principle of democracy--majority rule.
- Reformers find ways to get significant numbers of Republican legislators to embrace a pro-democracy stance. This could also happen, particularly if fissures between pro-Trump and never-Trump forces wind up effectively splitting the party in two.
By placing reform at the top of the House agenda, HR 1 advances all three possibilities. First, it puts Democrats firmly on-record for democracy, making it harder for them to back away in the future. It is historically much easier for members of the minority to support changes in the way we hold elections. The majority party benefits from the support of lobbyists and other big donors who care little about ideology and so will give campaign funds to which ever party holds power as a means of buying access and influence. Whenever the Democrats do take over both Congress and the White House, there will be some of them who seek to benefit from their new purchase on power and will be less inclined to change the rules. The more often they have voted for reforms before they get there, the better.
Similarly, Republican legislators are unlikely to support reform until they calculate that the electoral costs of opposing popular ideas are greater than the advantages they see perceive from corporate and billionaire campaign spending. That may happen when they find themselves in the political minority, but reformers are unlikely to prevail until several Republican incumbents are defeated due at least in part to their opposition to democratic reforms. Voters won’t know of that opposition unless Democrats force bills like HR 1 to multiple votes and then find challengers who are willing to raise reform issues during re-election campaigns. The emergence of dozens of Democratic challengers in the 2018 elections who refused to accept corporate PAC donations signaled that a new generation of candidates may be willing to make reform a centerpiece of their campaign platforms. Other votes that Democrats should push for include a restoration of the voting rights act and a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court.
Finally, the 571-page For the People Act begins the heavy lifting of describing precisely how to make U.S. elections more accurate and fair. There will be ample opportunities for academics, reform organizations, and ordinary citizens to propose amendments and improvements in the initial language. For instance, in calling for each state to appoint an independent redistricting commission to avoid the pitfalls of partisan gerrymandering, the current bill requires each state to draw single-member congressional districts according to certain criteria. This precludes states from adopting more innovative multi-member districts that used ranked voting such as those recently proposed by the New York Times editorial board, that could better balance the goals of accurate representation with competition. The discussion over whether to adopt such an approach is a process that will take years, so getting a serious start on it before the political moment is ripe for its passage is a good idea.
This bill is a big deal. If it wasn’t, a consummate money man like Mitch McConnell wouldn’t waste his breath trying to stop it.