Congressional Democrats passed a sweeping elections and ethics reform package on Friday morning that aims to reduce the role of big money in politics, expand voting rights – and require presidents to disclose their tax returns.
The House package, called the For the People Act, or HR 1, is the first major piece of legislation offered by the Democratic-controlled House, and aims to fulfill the promises lawmakers made on the campaign trail to make government more transparent and more accountable.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, celebrating the vote and confronting critics, said on Friday: “This is a historic day, a pivotal day. A day that will make a difference as we go forward. And to those – as Mr Phillips, congressman Phillips said: yes, it is a power grab. A power grab on behalf of the people.”
The plan would set up a public financing system for congressional campaigns that advocates say would reduce the influence of wealthy donors and special interests and create a more responsive politics. It also calls for:
- Making election day a national holiday
- Establishing automatic national voter registration
- Requiring “dark money” political groups to disclose their donor list
- Preventing members of Congress from serving on corporate boards
The measure also includes other provisions, such as support for DC statehood, paper ballots in federal elections and voter registration for minors, beginning at age 16.
Pelosi had explained earlier: “It’s about confidence. It’s about ending skepticism. This is about honoring our democracy.”
She said the legislation aimed to restore faith that government was for the people’s interests “not dark special interests”.
The House began debate on HR1 on Wednesday and was expected to pass the package on Friday, with all 235 Democrats signed on as co-sponsors. But the legislation faces fierce opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate, where the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already said he would not allow a floor vote.
Republicans have decried the bill as a “power grab” and an effort designed to sway elections in their favor.
“This is a terrible proposal,” McConnell said of the measure, which he has labelled the “Democrat Politician Protection Act”. “This is a solution in search of a problem. What it really is is a bill designed to make it more likely that Democrats win more often.”
With the bill’s passage, House Democrats hope to reset their message, which was overshadowed this week by controversy and internal division. On Thursday the House voted to condemn antisemitism and Islamophobia after the freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar insinuated that supporters of Israel encouraged dual loyalty.
During the midterms, Democrats ran on a message of government ethics and elections reform. By promising to strengthen ethics laws, restore integrity to the voting systems and reduce the influence of big money, Democrats sought to draw a sharp contrast with Donald Trump and his administration.
Trump came to Washington on a promise to “drain the swamp”, but several members of his cabinet have resigned amid ethics scandals and other controversies.
Polling shows broad, bipartisan public support for campaign finance reform as voters grow increasingly frustrated with the role of big money in politics. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 77% of voters believe “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on campaigns”.
Even if the bill doesn’t stand a chance of passing, reform advocates are galvanized by the widespread support among Democrats, including several presidential candidates.
“It’s the boldest and most sweeping package of reforms in a generation,” wrote Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, a group that advocates around campaign finance reform. “It will reset the way our government works by amplifying the voice of everyday families, so that politicians must be accountable to them – not wealthy donors.”