The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Distinguished pol of the week: Shoring up democracy

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Friday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

No one bested Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this week for verve, political pageantry and legislative acumen. She wore her power as stylishly as she did that red coat. However, in the interests of spreading the spotlight and examining other key players in the new Congress, I want to recognize. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). Who, you ask? He’s not a household name yet, but he is chairman of the Democracy Reform Task Force and principal author of H.R. 1, a massive ethics, voting-rights and campaign-spending bill, entitled “For The People Act."

In the area of voting rights, Sarbanes’s bill includes “automatic voter registration across the country, ensures that individuals who have completed felony sentences have their full rights restored, expands voting by mail and early voting and modernizes the U.S. voting system” as well as voting security. On ethics, the bill would address ”expanding conflict of interest law and divestment requirements, slowing the revolving door, preventing Members of Congress from serving on corporate boards and requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns" and revamp the Office of Government Ethics. And in the campaign finance area, H.R. 1 would, among other things, require soft-money groups to disclose big donors and create a generous new public finance matching system. It also “tightens rules on super PACs and restructures the Federal Election Commission to break the gridlock and enhance its enforcement mechanisms."

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, praised the bill in a written statement. “Today’s introduction of H.R. 1 marks the beginning of an effort to restore the promise of our democracy,” he said. “Reducing the negative influence of money in politics, addressing the current crisis of ethics in government, as well as protecting elections and the rights of voters are all necessary components of this project, the most important one any Congress can tackle.”

In a similar vein, Ian Bassin, executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that has launched court challenges against Trump’s unconstitutional power grabs, wrote: “We applaud the 116th Congress for putting democracy reform at the top of the agenda with H.R. 1. . . . Our democracy, like many around the world, is facing new challenges that Congress must address.” The statement continued: “Protect Democracy supports many of the important provisions of this bill. In particular, the election cybersecurity, election interference, and voting provisions in Title 1 protect the right to vote and the right to have all votes counted. Protect Democracy has litigated to protect these rights around the country and is encouraged that Congress will do more to ensure that all Americans can participate in our most basic democratic processes. All Members of Congress from both parties should support these basic values.”

The sheer size and scope of the bill may be an obstacle to passage, so Democrats, at some point, may want to break up the effort into manageable chunks so voters know exactly where their representatives stand — for example, on requiring the president and vice president to release 10 years of tax returns, or on knocking down barriers to voting. That can be sorted out later, however. If the House passes all or most of the items in H.R. 1 and sends them to the Senate, voter may begin to ask: Why are Republicans going along with Trump’s unethical practices and why do they want to suppress voting?

Sarbanes is right to emphasize that many voters feel “locked out of their democracy.” While much of this is directed at the president’s abuses, assaults on democratic norms as well as appalling conflicts of interest, we shouldn’t think of this merely as a response to one president. Around the world, democracy is under siege and, worse, losing its appeal to young adults. It’s not enough simply to rid ourselves of Trump; it’s necessary to bolster democratic institutions and enshrine in law certain ethical precepts we assumed were self-evident. (Bassin’s group last July put out a “Roadmap for Renewal” that includes many issues addressed in H.R. 1 and others as well, such as recapturing congressional power from the executive branch.)

For bringing forth H.R. 1 and getting the ball rolling on this effort, Sarbanes deserves credit. We therefore can say well done and good luck, congressman.