Cleaning the Congressional Stables

The New York Times Editorial Board
Dec 31, 2018

From petty grifting to allegations of treason, the early Trump era has offered a survey course in how to diminish public faith in democratic institutions. All signs are that the coming years will prove even more instructive.

Which is why it’s crucial for Democratic lawmakers to stay focused on and fired up about their emerging, much-hyped crusade to clean up Washington.

Inspired by the rolling spectacle of Trumpian corruption, Democrats ran hard on a midterm message of reform. They pitched an overhaul of the nation’s political system built around a trio of broad aims: improving access to and the integrity of the voting system, strengthening ethics laws and slashing the influence of big money.

It was a message for the moment. Americans are fed up with feeling that the system is rigged against them — to coin a phrase — and itching for leaders who will unrig it. In a September poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, 77 percent of registered voters cited “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” as either the “single most” or a “very important” factor in determining their vote for Congress. (Only “the economy” scored higher, with 78 percent.)

In October, 107 Democratic candidates delivered an open letter to Capitol Hill, calling for reform to be a top priority and vowing to make it one if elected. Dozens of those crusaders are set to take over the House on Thursday. Their voters expect them to get busy fulfilling that promise.

Enter H.R. 1, a comprehensive package of revisions to current political practice that House Democrats are looking to introduce in the opening weeks of the next Congress. While the details are still being hashed out, H.R. 1 will attempt to: establish nationwide automatic voter registration; promote online voter registration; end partisan gerrymandering; expand conflict-of-interest laws; increase oversight of lobbyists; require the disclosure of presidential tax returns; strengthen disclosure of campaign donations; set up a system of small-donor matching funds for congressional candidates; and revive the moribund matching-fund system for presidential campaigns. A plan for repairing the Voting Rights Act will move along a separate track.

The package is, by design, ambitious. Now is not the time to piddle with closing this loophole and improving that reporting rule, say reformers.

Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, the head of the caucus’s Democracy Reform Task Force and the father of H.R. 1, said that House passage of such a package would be “the Big Bang moment for creating a new universe of empowerment.”

Cheesy metaphors aside, central to realizing any new universe is one of the package’s boldest measures: a voluntary matching-fund system to multiply the power of small donors. As this system is currently proposed, candidates would receive public matching funds at a six-to-one ratio for donations of up to $200 in exchange for abiding by a lower dollar limit on individual contributions — say, $1,000 rather than the current limit of $2,700.

Such a change wouldn’t stem the flood of outside money deforming the political system, but it would give candidates an alternative way to run — and provide not-so-rich Americans a greater sense that their voices can be heard. It is the foundation on which other anti-corruption efforts rest, reformers say, with a warning that if lawmakers don’t address this problem, their credibility will remain in the toilet.

The data suggest that the public has an appetite for taking on campaign finance. A Pew Research poll from May found that 77 percent of Americans favor “limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations” can spend on campaigns. (This includes 71 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.) Sixty-five percent believe that new laws could effectively reduce the influence of money in politics.

At this point, the hunger for reform is so fierce among the Democratic base that the caucus will need to work to temper expectations. While H.R. 1 is near the top of the to-do list of the incoming House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the package will take a while to make its way to a floor vote. At least five committees have oversight of pieces of it, and even among Democrats there are competing visions for various provisions that must be worked through. Democratic House leaders are hoping to get a bill passed early in the year. And then it is likely to go nowhere fast.

One reason H.R. 1 can be so big and bold is that it is mostly an expression of what Democrats would like to do rather than what has any real shot at moving through this divided government. Even staunch fans of the measure expect the Republican majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, to jam it up in his chamber. The phlegmatic Mr. McConnell may not get worked up about much, but over the years he has consistently displayed a fierce passion for strangling anything resembling campaign finance reform.

The package could prove awkward for Republican members in other areas as well. For instance, measures to make voting easier might be a hard sell in a party that appears to have so vigorously committed to curtailing voter access.

Realistically speaking, enacting even pieces of a bill like H.R. 1 is more of a medium- to longish-term legislative goal. But this does not diminish the urgency of passing the package in the House as a declaration of Democrats’ commitment. Its champions seem to grasp this. Mr. Sarbanes expressed optimism that serious revisions could be achieved within a couple of election cycles — but only if Democrats move quickly to get people fired up and then “keep the pressure on.”

Even the most ethically bankrupt politician can spout drivel about “draining the swamp.” For the next couple of years, Democrats’ challenge is to keep this issue hot enough to make life uncomfortable for reform foes like Mr. McConnell — and to make clear to voters what must be done if they want to take this crusade beyond one chamber of Congress.