The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Democratic House is taking on ethics reform first. We need it.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California holds a news conference at the Capitol in Washington.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California holds a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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HOUSE DEMOCRATS won a majority in the next Congress not because they are unified behind Medicare-for-all — they are not — or because they favor an infrastructure plan — which President Trump does, too. They won in some previously GOP-friendly areas because they promised an alternative to Mr. Trump’s undignified, cynical behavior.

They appear to have received voters’ message. The first major action the new Democratic majority plans to take next year is not the embrace of a left-wing ideological hobby horse, but an ambitious plan to tighten up the nation’s democratic procedures, combat big money in politics and enhance political ethics rules. Senate Republicans may balk at the bill, set to be the first filed in the House next year. But they will have a hard time explaining why.

The plan will be finalized over the coming weeks, but the outlines are becoming clear. Democrats will make the biggest push to fight money in politics since the early 2000s, finally adapting the nation’s rules to the reality ushered in by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. The origins of the dark money sloshing around the political system would have to be disclosed.

If the early indications hold, there would also be a new public financing system for candidates that would amplify the power of small-value donations. Every dollar donated would be matched at a high rate — perhaps 6 to 1 — by public funds if candidates voluntarily submitted to the small-donor program. Local-level experiments with this sort of public financing program have shown promise. If Democrats are to make a statement on how the political system should be working, this is a crucial element of the bill that must remain in the package.

Also important are elections reforms, which would make the process of voting safer and less of a hassle. Voter registration should be automatic unless individuals opt out, as is the case in California and Oregon. Early voting should be readily available. Election security should be bolstered well before the 2020 election. The nation must invest more money in better voting equipment. Congress has wide authority over how states conduct federal elections. It can require much more than it now does. Also well within its power is updating and repairing the Voting Rights Act to better protect minorities’ access to the ballot box.

After two years of seemingly nonstop scandal, ethics reforms are badly needed. All presidents should be required to release their tax returns. Members of Congress should not be able to serve on corporate boards.

A proposal that reflects these priorities would not be some loony left-wing monstrosity. Most — if not all — of these reforms should be bipartisan. If “H.R. 1” turns out to be nothing more than a messaging bill, it will reflect more on the opponents who blocked it than on the new Democratic majority pushing it forward.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Democrats will try to get Trump’s tax returns. But they need to do it right.

Nancy Pelosi and John Sarbanes: The Democratic majority’s first order of business: Restore democracy

Knut Heidar: Voter registration is useless. So let’s get rid of it.

Ellen Kurz: Registration is a voter-suppression tool. Let’s finally end it.

Christopher Ingraham: Most Americans want to make it easier — not harder — to vote