The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is no time to compromise on democracy reform

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at an event promoting H.R. 1 on March 10. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School, is the author of “They Don’t Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy.”

H.R. 1 is poised to be the most important democracy reform enacted by Congress since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But in the wake of its passage in the House on a strict party-line vote on March 3, some anxious scholars and pundits worry it cannot pass the Senate and are urging Democrats to pull back.

That advice is wholly misguided, both politically and morally. This is not the time to compromise on H.R. 1. It is not time for Democrats to negotiate against themselves. This is the time to make the argument for every facet of H.R. 1 even more strongly.

H.R. 1 is an omnibus reform package that covers a wide range of flaws in our current representative democracy. Building on the work of the late representative John Lewis, the bill would assure that every qualified voter had equal freedom to vote, and that no state could deploy complex rules to suppress anyone’s right to participate. It would end the partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, increase election security and, for the first time in U.S. history, give candidates for Congress a real opportunity to rely on small contributors alone to fund their campaigns. The bill would also impose substantial ethics regulations on Congress, the Supreme Court and the president. And it would be funded by fines, penalties and settlements from corporate tax, lobbying and financial fraud cases.

The breadth of its ambition is a strength, not weakness. Americans are deeply skeptical of their government. Overwhelmingly, they believe that Congress serves not them, but the special interests who pay for campaigns. Many are deeply and rightly angry at the efforts by states to suppress their vote. Others are frustrated with legislatures that draw districts to permanently entrench a political minority as a majority. And practically everyone thinks that every branch of our government must commit to higher ethical ideals. We are told we have the greatest democracy in the world. Yet very few who know anything about how it actually functions believe this.

H.R. 1 responds to these frustrations by addressing each aspect directly. Not every American is concerned with every part. But any American awake to political reality is convinced of at least part. Voters in Iowa are less concerned with gerrymandering — because that doesn’t happen in Iowa. But many voters in Iowa are appalled by a campaign funding system that just gave them the second-most-expensive Senate race in U.S. history, with 75 percent of the money coming from outside the state. The strategy of H.R. 1 is to address the common perception that our government doesn’t work for us, even if the particular flaws that might anger any group of citizens may be different.

If H.R. 1 gets dismembered, this common purpose disappears. Yes, of course, Congress should address the growing problem of vote suppression. But if that’s all it addresses, many members have less cause to champion it. Congress should address gerrymandering, but Iowa, Michigan, Arizona, California, and Ohio already have, and so the urgency is less for their representatives. Practically every American laments the corrupting influence of money in politics, but why should voters in districts without adequate polling places worry about how campaigns are funded? We all see problems with our democracy, but the problems we all see are not the same.

Mistaken pragmatists, however, insist that Democrats should satisfy themselves with reforms in voting rights and possibly gerrymandering. They would abandon reforms in campaign finance and transparency, as well as ethics.

But no voter is going to turn against a representative because they’ve passed ethics reform. And a key potential swing vote in the Senate right now has been a longtime advocate of campaign finance and transparency reform. As governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin III (D) pressed the state to publicly fund judicial elections. As a U.S. senator, Manchin has been a longtime co-sponsor of campaign finance reform in Congress as well, observing that “the people of West Virginia are also deeply troubled by the increasing role that money is playing in our politics.” In that same speech, Manchin lamented the time that members must spend raising money from a very few number of large donors — one of the problems that H.R. 1 addresses.

There’s no doubt that passing H.R. 1 will be difficult and could be blocked by the filibuster. But it is a mistake to believe that going smaller would make it easier. Instead, what we need now is a clear articulation of the very simple principle that stands behind everything in this bill — that in a representative democracy, the institutions of that democracy must be representative. Ours are not. Without the reforms of H.R. 1, our precariously majoritarian system will become predictably minoritarian. And for that, there is neither moral nor political justification, let alone strategic wisdom.

Read more:

Robert E. Rubin: H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 would reform our democracy. They’d also help our economy.

The Post’s View: Republicans’ rhetoric on H.R. 1 is apocalyptic. Are they that afraid of democracy?

Kate Ruane and Sonia Gill: H.R. 1 could restore our democracy. As it’s written now, it could hurt it, too.

Edward B. Foley: Voting rights are in trouble. H.R. 1 isn’t going to pass — but this could.

Jonathan Capehart: Time for some more ‘good trouble’ on voting rights, 56 years after ‘Bloody Sunday’