WASHINGTON — House Democrats will unveil Friday the details of ambitious legislation devised to lower barriers to the ballot box, tighten ethics and lobbying restrictions, and require presidents and candidates for the nation’s highest offices to release their tax returns.
But the symbolism-soaked rollout of their top legislative priority was already at risk of being overshadowed before the day even began by the impasse over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion to fund a wall along the southwestern border. A White House meeting with congressional leaders Friday could absorb the Democratic leaders’ time and the news media’s attention.
Democrats were expected to detail the bill — a patchwork of dozens of changes to ethics, campaign finance and voting laws known as the For the People Act — late Friday morning on Capitol Hill. Only a half-hour after the news conference, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her Senate counterpart and other congressional leaders are scheduled to meet with Trump to continue negotiations over the spending fight, which has shuttered a quarter of the government for almost three weeks.
White House officials and Republican lawmakers were optimistic that Democrats would be more inclined to compromise now that Pelosi has the speaker’s gavel in hand. But there were few signs that Pelosi — the Californian who was elected speaker with cries of “No Wall Pelosi” by fellow Democrats — would relent after the House passed two bills to reopen the government Thursday night.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Trump, Bowser spar over police response as White House protests continue
- Researchers warn COVID-19 could cause debilitating long-term illness in some patients
- The death of George Floyd: What video and other records show about his final minutes
- Protests over police killings rage in dozens of U.S. cities VIEW
- Supreme Court rejects challenge to limits on church services
“Does anyone have any doubt about that?” Pelosi said shortly before that vote. “We’re not doing a wall. It’s an old way of thinking. It’s not cost effective.”
This is not how Democrats had imagined their first few days in power, but they planned to push ahead with their own priorities, anyway.
Party leaders view the voting and ethics measure as the opening salvo in a two-year campaign to either make law or drive a wedge between Trump and the voters who supported him over issues he promised to champion, such as infrastructure investment and lowering health care costs. As such, they were not overly concerned that the first bill was unlikely to even be considered by the Senate, where the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, dismissed it as “probably” unconstitutional.
“What we are trying to do is make sure that the American public is at the table in Washington,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who oversaw the drafting of the legislation. “They have felt like they weren’t there. This is saying: ‘Pull up a chair. You’re at the table. Now let’s talk about all the things we need to go do.”
At almost 600 pages, the bill is a compendium of liberal proposals to marginalize the influence of money in politics, protect U.S. elections from foreign threats, reduce political partisanship in the elections process and expand voter participation.
In a speech accepting the speaker’s gavel Thursday, Pelosi said the bill would “restore integrity to government so that people can have confidence that government works for the people, not the special interests.”
Leaning on constitutional authority to determine the parameters of House elections, the bill would effectively outlaw the gerrymandering of congressional districts, a practice employed by both Republicans and Democrats to maximize one-party control of individual states by sorting voters into districts according to their politics. Instead, states would be required to form independent commissions to draw districts based on apolitical metrics; state legislative districts would be unaffected.
Seeking to reverse Republicans’ state-level efforts to tighten access to polling places, the legislation mandates that state election officials automatically register eligible citizens to vote and outlaws certain tactics meant to remove voters from the rolls — provisions that would most likely protect minority voters.
Though it would take a constitutional amendment to limit the amount of money being spent to influence elections, the legislation would ban contributions by corporations substantially owned or controlled by foreigners and would require nonprofit organizations like unions and organizations registered under section 501(c) (4) of the tax code that participate in political activity to disclose the identity of donors who contribute more than $10,000. It would also require large digital companies to make public who is purchasing political ads, provisions included in the high-profile Honest Ads Act during the last Congress.
The legislation would also try to effectively prohibit coordination between campaigns and outside groups and expand the public financing system for House and presidential candidates. And it would require presidential inaugural committees, which are subject to very little oversight, to publicly account for their expenditures.
Directly targeting Trump, who has broken with decades of precedent by refusing to release his tax returns, the legislation would require presidents, vice presidents and candidates for those offices to make public 10 years of those files.
In response to Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 elections, the bill would allocate money for federal grants to states to update their elections infrastructure, mandate certain routine security checks by state election authorities and require the executive branch to develop deterrence strategies.
And to clamp down on ethics violations, it would provide funds to beef up Justice Department enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, tighten federal lobbying rules and strengthen the authority of the Office of Government Ethics.
House Democrats said they planned to simultaneously pursue legislation intended to restore key enforcement provisions to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Supreme Court struck down the provisions of the law in 2013 and urged Congress to develop a replacement for the plan, under which the federal government had pre-cleared changes to election laws in states with a history of voting rights abuses.
Democrats formally introduced the legislation Thursday, the first day of the new Congress. But it will most likely take more than a month for lawmakers to move the bill to the House floor. Portions of the law must first be considered variously by the House Judiciary, Administration, Ways and Means, and Oversight and Reform Committees.
One House official said Democrats hoped to have the bill passed by mid-February, but the vote could take longer depending on progress reopening parts of the government currently affected by a lapse in funding.
The legislation unites veteran Democratic lawmakers with many of the party’s newest elected members who flipped Republican seats last fall in part by promising to clean up the influence of big-money donors and lobbyists in Congress and a White House perceived by many to be rife with conflicts of interest.
McConnell, who controls the Senate floor, has been one of the Senate’s fiercest opponents of tightening campaign finance laws and of federal intervention in elections broadly over the years. After the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the enforcement provisions within the Voting Rights Act in 2013, McConnell said it was not necessary to offer an alternative.
At a Wall Street Journal event in early December, he predicted that the House bill was “probably going to be a blatantly unconstitutional effort to have the government basically micromanage the way we handle elections.”
“That’s not going to go anywhere in the Senate,” he added.
Sarbanes, conceding the majority leader’s view could be a death knell for now, predicted that Republicans would lose in the court of public opinion.
“If he wants to ultimately stand with his arms folded between the American people and their democracy, then he should go right ahead,” Sarbanes said. “But I think he is going to get knocked over by the sentiment of the country right now.”