Democratic Party leaders are under pressure from a broad coalition of liberal groups to make a sweeping government-overhaul bill their first order of business in January if the party wins a House majority.
The effort has gotten at least tentative backing from top House Democratic leaders. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) have called for early ethics legislation and specifically praised the work of Rep. John Sarbanes (Md.), who released a broad legislative blueprint earlier this year.
But the demand from outside groups — including influential organizations such as the Service Employees International Union, Planned Parenthood, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — who have signed a “Declaration for American Democracy” stands to make an overhaul bill a top priority, even as Democratic candidates campaign mainly on preserving affordable health care and Social Security.
The groups are calling for legislation that expands voting-rights protections, tightens campaign finance laws and cracks down on government ethics in Washington. All three areas are addressed in the Sarbanes blueprint, although the leaders of the groups in question said Tuesday that they planned to push for action regardless of who wins the House majority.
“Only by winning foundational reforms to our process can we hope to move forward substantive reforms in other areas that are so important to the American people, from protecting our environment to improving the lives of consumers and working families to lowering prescription drug prices and so much more,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen, who promised a “comprehensive inside-outside-D.C. campaign” following the election.
Passing legislation in the House, of course, would be a far cry from making law — especially with many election forecasters predicting that Republicans, whose leaders oppose many elements of the liberal overhaul package, are likely to pick up seats in the Senate. But it could jump-start a public debate about the way America does politics and government.
“Opportunities from major political reforms do not come along very often,” said Fred Wertheimer, leader of Democracy 21, a good-government nonprofit organization. “However, with a broken political system, a corrupt campaign finance system and a scandal-ridden Washington, today the stage is set for major reforms. This coalition has formed to seize the moment.”
The changes they are seeking include national automatic voter registration, ending the ability of lobbyists to “bundle” campaign donations and sending a constitutional amendment to the states to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Each of those elements was included in a House resolution introduced in May that won support from dozens of Democrats, including the ranking members of the committees that would write the legislation.
Sarbanes said in an interview Monday that he considered the resolution to be a blueprint for further legislation, which will be cobbled together from more than 20 existing bills and further refined in the relevant committees.
The overhaul package is a political imperative as much as a policy necessity, Sarbanes said, adding that he had a “strong commitment” from leadership to move quickly on the legislation but could not guarantee it would be the very first bill put up for a vote.
“The public hates Washington and both parties with a broad brush right now. They look at us and they say, ‘You’re all part of the same corrupt system,' " Sarbanes said. “This is an opportunity for Democrats to establish a brand that says, ‘We get it.’ Every time you hand us the gavel, we’re going to go make this kind of change to restore your voice. And I think doing that quickly is important.”
“Put it on the floor, make the statement that Democrats get it, that we understand how angry people are,” he added.
Two years after Donald Trump won the presidency, Democrats are still staring at the triumph of Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric that promised to remake the way Washington worked, tilting things away from moneyed interests toward everyday Americans. But Democrats and the groups speaking out Tuesday say those promises have been hollow, citing a tax bill and deregulatory agenda geared toward the rich and a spate of ethics scandals inside the Trump administration.
“Donald Trump traded on people’s anger at Washington and offered that he would drain the swamp, unrig the system, clean everything up, and he got a powerful response to that,” Sarbanes said. “Now he hasn’t kept that promise. But I think Democrats are prepared to."
Ezra Levin, a co-founder of the Indivisible network of liberal activist groups, also invoked Trump in pushing for overhauls: “A healthy democratic body would have rejected Trump the same way a healthy body rejects a virus, but it didn’t happen. Our fundamental problem is not Donald Trump. Our fundamental problem are the forces and institutions that allowed him to rise."
One common refrain from Democratic House candidates this election cycle has been a personal pledge not to accept contributions from political action committees affiliated with corporations.
The Democratic resolution does not include further restrictions on corporate PAC money, and Sarbanes said it’s unlikely to be included for constitutional reasons. But he said that Democrats should work to develop an alternative way for candidates to finance campaigns.
“Campaigns cost a lot of money. You need to be able to raise that money somewhere,” he said. “If somewhere could be where America lives, where people are, instead of where corporate America and the special interests and the big money and the PACs live, that would transform American politics.”