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Democrats would hold quick vote on sweeping ethics bill, Hoyer says

The suite of overhauls floated by House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) includes campaign finance measures, new ethics provisions and voting process changes. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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If they win a majority in the House, Democrats should quickly hold a vote on a wide-ranging package of government reforms, the No. 2 Democratic leader in the chamber said in a policy address Wednesday.

The ethics focus from Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) comes as Democrats begin to seize on a spate of Trump administration scandals and the recent federal indictments of two sitting Republican House members less than two months before the midterm elections.

"The American people need to see that we’re serious and that we understand the scope of our challenges," he said, according to prepared remarks delivered at a Washington event hosted by the End Citizens United Action Fund. "If Democrats can fix government, we can earn the trust of voters to lead on addressing health care and infrastructure and the other challenges before us."

The suite of overhauls floated by Hoyer includes campaign finance measures, new ethics provisions and voting process changes. All, he said, "should be packaged into one reform bill and addressed in the opening days of the next Congress" if Democrats win control of Congress.

The promise echoes a push made by Democrats the last time they won the House majority, in 2006, though Hoyer's timeline is ambitious. In 2007, it took Democrats nearly five months to muscle through a reform package that sought to crack down on a pay-to-play culture in the House, though they quickly implemented new internal rules banning the acceptance of gifts from lobbyists and tightening how lawmakers could secure legislative spending "earmarks" for pet projects.

A Democratic House majority continues to look like a serious possibility, according to new polling released Wednesday. Surveys from Quinnipiac University and from NPR-Marist both gave Democrats a double-digit advantage in voters' generic party preference in their local congressional races. That margin, political strategists of both parties say, could herald the end of the eight-year House Republican majority.

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On the campaign finance front, Hoyer said Democrats would move to increase disclosure requirements for "dark money" nonprofit groups that can currently hide their donors, propose a new 48-hour disclosure requirement for independent political groups — matching the standard for candidates themselves — and create a new "nondisclosure penalty" for super PACs that take steps to hide their donors.

Hoyer also endorsed a system of public campaign financing for Congress, akin to the current system in presidential races — specifically a proposal drafted by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.).

"This money-chase shrinks the pool of good people willing to step up and serve, and it takes time away from legislating and interacting with constituents," he said. "Constituents have become justifiably cynical as a result. This must stop."

To better police the ethics of elected officials, Hoyer said, Congress should require the president and vice president to make public their most five recent tax returns, ban House members from serving on corporate boards and require House members to link to their personal financial disclosure statements on their House websites. Hoyer also called for giving subpoena power to the Office of Government Ethics, which polices executive branch personnel.

Hoyer said Democrats would move quickly to restore the Voting Rights Act protections that were affected by the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision. He also backed redistricting revisions, legislation that would expand early and weekend voting, opening up a "national voter protection hotline" and improving ballot access for service members, youth, seniors and convicted felons who have served their sentences.

Inside the House, Hoyer said, Democrats would mount a tough oversight campaign against the Trump administration, promising "fair, honest and thorough oversight to investigate abuses and hold officials accountable."

“There’s no accountability in Washington," he said. "Under a Democratic House majority, that would change. . . . This will not — and must not — be about playing politics. The aim of these investigations will be to safeguard the public interest and make government work again."

But he also suggested partially reversing one Republican-touted overhaul: the elimination of spending earmarks. While Democrats in 2007 eliminated earmarks to for-profit entities and implemented new transparency requirements, then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) moved to eliminate them entirely in 2011.

Hoyer defended reforming but not eliminating earmarks — a position held by many sitting lawmakers of both parties: "We believed then, as we do now, that transparency is essential to ensuring that the people’s interest is served. Republicans eliminated earmarks altogether, and the result has been an abdication of Congress’s power of the purse. Let’s correct this mistake together."