The legislation that House Democrats will pass in the next two years, other than budget bills and the occasional genuinely bipartisan bill, will be symbolic. But symbolism is important in politics: Democrats will be communicating to the voters what their priorities are, what problems need addressing, and what they’ll do should they win control of the government two years from now.
For their first bill, to be listed as House Resolution 1, they have chosen a package of reforms meant to shore up our democracy against the attacks it has recently suffered at the hands of the Republican Party and the Supreme Court. But are they missing the real target? More to the point, could they hit it even if they wanted to?
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), along with Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the Democrats’ point person on this issue, wrote an op-ed for The Post, laying out the party’s democracy reform agenda, which is broken down this way:
- “First, let’s end the dominance of money in politics” with new disclosure rules for dark money groups and matching funds for small donors.
- “Next, let’s make sure that when public servants get to Washington, they serve the public” with stricter rules for government officials and lobbyists and steps to undermine the revolving door between government and those seeking favors from government.
- “Finally, let’s make it easier, not harder, to vote” with a new Voting Rights Act, national automatic voter registration, and outlawing partisan gerrymandering.
This is all worthwhile, and I’m sure it polls great, too. But cynic that I am, I can’t help but worry that it is another well-intentioned effort that wouldn’t really have much effect in the long run if it were passed. So, on Monday, I spoke with Sarbanes to see whether he could convince me otherwise.
He began by saying that the package “makes a strong statement, right out of the gate, that this is what Democrats stand for and are going to fight for.” The bill itself is still being written — Sarbanes said new members will have a chance to weigh in — but it will be ready when the new Congress convenes in January.
My own feeling about this is that the voting-rights piece is the most important and, perhaps, the most difficult to achieve on a federal level. So let’s start with the other two.
Public disgust at the influence of big money and corruption in Washington is pretty much a constant. The problem is that no one seems to be able to do more than nibble around its edges. Whenever rules about the revolving door are tightened, those who want to spin around it seem to have no trouble figuring out how to do so. For instance, a 2007 law forbade former senators from lobbying for two years, so many became “strategic advisers” who are lobbyists in all but name, schmoozing with their old colleagues and getting paid by big corporations for their advice.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Democrats will put in some new requirements for public officials, and that they will make cashing in slightly more inconvenient for a while, until everyone accommodates themselves to the new system.
What about campaign finance? More disclosure would be good but, at this point, it’s difficult to see how it would change much, in and of itself. Just as it is no longer considered “selling out” when a movie star or musician endorses a product (as it was not too many years ago), no one is scandalized when a billionaire drops $100 million to help a party win an election. Some of us geeks may pore through Federal Election Commission reports, but most of the public just doesn’t care. And we seem to go through a cycle where we pass reforms that impose new restrictions on the current prevailing vehicles for the super-rich and corporations to exercise influence over campaigns, after which the money finds a different way to move — from 527s to super PACs to 501(c)(4)s to whatever the next thing will be.
Sarbanes acknowledged this problem. But he said it’s the reason Democrats want to focus on the other side of the equation: not restricting big money, but countering it with small money. What we should do, Sarbanes said, is to “create competing forms of influence that are driven and owned by the broad public,” adding that “it’s creating systems that invite candidates to turn their attention away from the big-money players and towards everyday citizens.” If the government were to match small donations, that would mean more candidates able to ignore big money.
Perhaps. But let’s turn to the most pressing question: voting rights. When I asked Sarbanes about the kinds of voter suppression efforts we saw in 2018, he said that something such as the bill introduced a few years ago by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and others would be incorporated into the package. That bill never went anywhere in the Republican-controlled House, but it is quite comprehensive, mandating things such as extended early voting, same-day registration, automatic registration, paper ballots to allow for accurate recounts, and no-excuse absentee voting. The one big missing piece is addressing voter suppression through aggressive purging of voter rolls, as Republicans did to such effect in places like Ohio and Georgia; Sarbanes said some standards on that issue would be included in the Democratic package.
But if it became law, it would immediately be challenged in the courts by Republicans as an infringement on states’ rights. Sarbanes didn’t seem too concerned when I raised that issue.
“The federal government has the opportunity to, in a sense, put up guardrails for how voting can operate, and then the states have to meet those standards,” he said, “and we’re exploring those opportunities as much as we can.” While it’s true that the federal government has the right to regulate the conduct of federal elections, pretty much every last thing Democrats propose could eventually come before the Supreme Court.
And that’s where the real problem lies. The five conservative justices on the court have shown themselves to be hostile to voting rights, expansive in their solicitousness toward the needs of the ultra-rich to shape campaigns to their liking, and favorably disposed to any kind of voter suppression a GOP-run state can come up with. It is hard to imagine they wouldn’t strike down any effort at safeguarding democracy if they thought it might adversely affect the electoral prospects of the Republican Party.
Unsurprisingly, Sarbanes wouldn’t agree that any effort at real federal reform is doomed. But he did acknowledge that at the moment, Democrats don’t have much power beyond the symbolic. “At the very least,” he said, this reform package is “going to be a statement to the public: Every time you give Democrats the gavel, this is the kind of change you can expect to see.” That kind of statement may be all they can offer for now.