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Messaging Outweighs Deal-making in Democrats’ ‘Good Government’ Package

If the ambitious "good government" legislative package put forward by the House Democrats was on a fast track to enactment, there'd be less urgency to launch The Firewall. But because the bill has no such bright prospects, there will be plenty for us to cover for the indefinite future.

The legislation's sweeping objectives – limit the influence of money on politics, ease access to the ballot box and intensify government ethics – reflect the aspirational themes of many advocacy groups assembled under the banner of "political reform."

Having gained 40 seats to reclaim the House majority in January, the Democrats will have more than enough muscle to push their bill halfway through the Capitol. But then it's set to come to a full and lasting stop on the doorstep of the still-Republican Senate, one of many measures that seem destined to show brief signs of life before dying in the newly divided Congress.

Thirteen Senate Republicans, or one quarter of their number, would have to cross Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and join the Democrats in order to advance the bill over a GOP leadership filibuster. That isn't even a remote possibility at this point. In fact, the bill is unlikely to make it anywhere near even a preliminary test vote.

The House bill is "not going to go anywhere in the Senate," the Kentucky Republican declared the day Congress returned for its post-Thanksgiving lame-duck session.

The most powerful House Democrats understood this even before McConnell said it so plainly. But they have decided to press ahead anyway, promoting their policy wishes without any cross-party compromise. As such, the bill has all the hallmarks of what's known in Washington as a political messaging measure – one that will help define the two parties differently from now until the next election almost two years from now.

A collection of provisions that might draw a measure of bipartisan support has been lashed to "poison pill" proposals that, while galvanizing the Democrats in salivating enthusiasm, makes the GOP collectively nauseated.

Some Democrats, though, are open to breaking the package apart so some provisions with Republican supporters have a shot at air time in the Senate – understanding full well that would doom the most far-reaching provisions, including a restoration of the heart of the Voting Rights Act and language to squeeze "dark money" out of campaigns.

Dozens of incoming first-year House Democrats campaigned on a platform to "fix" the political system. Not only do they want to make good on those vows, but they want to do so quickly to persuade voters they'll tackle other hot-button issues – from gun control to health care — without being beholden to big donors.

"These are transformative reforms that we're putting forward," said Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, the leadership's major domo for the effort. "It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a bold, proud declaration to the American people, 'We get it, we hear you.'"

The legislation is going to be designated HR 1 as something of an honorific, signaling its symbolic primacy in the eyes of the newly empowered Democratic majority. (HR 1 in the current, Republican-run Congress was a bill to revamp the tax code that morphed into the 2017 Trump tax cut.) But the name does nothing to convey any place at the head of the legislative calendar; there's no guarantee, at this point, the package will be the first piece of legislation put before the House in the new year.

In fact, it has not even been formally introduced and is still subject to alteration before the 116th Congress convenes on Jan. 3. But, at this point, these are the principal provisions:

Voting Rights

  • Reinstates a central provision of the Voting Rights Act, struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013. Known as Section 4, the provision set the ground rules for determining which parts of the country have such a bad record of racial discrimination in voting that every decision to do with elections in those states or counties should be subject to federal approval, or "preclearance." The effect would be to end several restrictive voter ID laws that states, mainly in the South, have imposed in the five years since the court ruling.
  • Requires states to eliminate the role of their legislatures in House redistricting and create independent commissions for drawing congressional maps.
  • Enacts a nationwide system that would automatically register all U.S. citizens, after they turn 18, to vote whenever they conduct business with any government agency, such as renewing a driver's license or showing up for jury duty.
  • Mandates regular federal investigations into the security of voting systems against interference by foreign entities, with funding to help states upgrade their election hardware and software.

Campaign Finance

  • Creates federal subsidies for House and Senate candidates, through which the government would contribute $6,000 for every $1,000 raised in relatively small donations from individuals.
  • The bill would increase public disclosure requirements for non-candidate political expenditures, including at the end of TV ads. (The aim is to shed light on the surge of "dark money" unleashed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling that independent campaign spending is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.)

Ethics

  • Requires major party nominees for president to make public their most recent three years of tax returns within a month of securing their nominations.
  • Limits first class air travel by members of Congress and the executive branch.
  • Bans the use of federal funds to settle sexual harassment claims against members of Congress.
  • Prohibits members of Congress from receiving bonus payments from their former employers and from serving on boards of for-profit enterprises.
  • Bolsters the oversight authority of the Office of Government Ethics.
  • Increases congressional oversight of foreign lobbying.
  • Creates the first binding ethical code of conduct for Supreme Court justices.

Correction: This article was updated to properly describe the bill's campaign finance provision targeting dark money.

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