The House approved a far-reaching elections and ethics bill Friday — one that would change the way congressional elections are funded, impose new voter-access mandates on states and, in one of several provisions targeting President Trump, force disclosure of presidential candidates’ tax returns.
“It’s a power grab, a power grab on behalf of the people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at an event on the Capitol steps ahead of the planned vote.
House Republicans sought to portray the legislation, which passed 234 to 193 along party lines, as a self-interested proposal that tilts the political playing field toward Democrats. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called it “a massive federal government takeover that would undermine the integrity of our elections.”
The bill is headed for a brick wall in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made clear it will not get a vote. However, Democrats and their allies said the bill’s passage would build momentum for action in coming years if and when Democrats solidify control in Washington.
“If Mitch McConnell is the immovable object, H.R. 1 is the unstoppable force,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the lead author of the bill. “We’ll keep pushing on it.”
A central provision establishes public financing for congressional elections, giving candidates as much as a 6-to-1 match for small donations to participating campaigns. Republicans have attacked the measure for funneling taxpayer money to political candidates; Democrats reworked the bill to tap revenue from fines from people and companies found guilty of corporate malfeasance.
The change did little to stem GOP attacks. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said Friday it would funnel “billions upon billions of dollars into the coffers of members of Congress.”
“That’s the height of hypocrisy,” Davis said. “No one is asking for more corporate dollars to line the campaign coffers of members of Congress.”
Another key campaign finance provision would require nonprofit “dark money” groups that engage in political activity to disclose their large donors — a provision that has generated opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups that argue the disclosure could chill free speech.
The bill also aims to end partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts by requiring independent state commissions, rather than legislatures, to draw lines. It also would create an automatic voter-registration system, bar states from disenfranchising felons who have completed their sentences, create stricter rules surrounding voter-roll purges and weaken state laws requiring voters to present photo identification.
Several parts of the bill appeared to be aimed at the alleged abuses of Trump and his administration — none more clearly than a requirement that presidential and vice presidential candidates disclose 10 years of past tax returns, a voluntary practice that the president has ignored. The bill was amended this week to require the disclosure of the tax returns of companies owned or controlled by those candidates.
Presidential inaugural committees would be subject to stricter disclosure requirements under the bill, and several provisions are aimed at executive-branch travel spending — including a measure that would prevent federal funds from being spent at hotels and resorts owned by Trump.
Other provisions include a new mandatory ethical code for the Supreme Court, an end to most first-class travel for federal officeholders and a provision making Election Day a national holiday.
McConnell called the last proposal a Democratic “power grab” this year in one of several Senate floor speeches in which he has attacked various provisions of the bill as unnecessary, unconstitutional or unfair.
“This new House Democrat majority’s top priority is apparently assigning themselves an unprecedented level of control over how they get elected to Washington, D.C., along with how, where and what American citizens are allowed to say about it,” he said Tuesday. “More than anything else, Washington Democrats want a tighter grip on political debate and the operation of elections, nationwide.”
Democrats insisted this week that they are interested in good government, not in amassing power.
“We must reject the culture of corruption here and put the power back in the hands of the people we represent,” Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) said Thursday during remarks on the House floor. “We can clean up the muddy swamp behaviors by passing H.R. 1.”
At the event on the Capitol steps earlier Friday, Pelosi acknowledged the difficulties the bill faces in the Senate, saying Democrats planned to fight “until we win.”
Fred Wertheimer, an activist who is a veteran of campaign finance and ethics reform battles dating back to the 1970s, said good-government advocates have a “three- to five-year strategy” in mind.
“The argument that McConnell is not going to schedule this is really not relevant to what we’re trying to do,” he said. “This is the beginning of an effort that will go into 2021, that will go into the congressional and presidential campaigns. If we get a responsive Senate and president, we’ll be on the doorstep. If we don’t, it will go forward in 2022 and into 2023. This is a long game.”