On January 4, Democrats kicked off their House majority by introducing the first piece of legislation of the 116th Congress: “To expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and for other purposes,” colloquially known as the “For the People Act.” The 571-page bill is divided into sections to address three major sources of government corruption: voter access, campaign finance, and standards of ethics. With a continually declining public confidence in government institutions, anti-corruption measures may be one of the few nonpartisan issues left in 2019. The resolution adopting the House Rules for the 116th Congress, for example, received bipartisan support in its creation of the Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman, a long-time goal of whistleblower advocates. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 77 percent of registered voters designated reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington as either the most important or a very important issue facing the country.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently indicated that, regardless of how it may appear to the public, Congress has been able to pass important bipartisan legislation. “Actually, we do a lot of things together all the time,” McConnell told The Wall Street Journal in December. “The week we were having a big partisan shoot out over Kavanaugh, we passed an opioid bill 99 to 1…There are plenty of things that we do that are good for the country on a bipartisan basis.” McConnell additionally referenced the fact that, at the time, 75 percent of the government had been funded before the end of the fiscal year, an unusual bipartisan accomplishment. Indeed, congressional Republicans and Democrats alike had agreed on a continuing resolution that would have funded the government through Feb. 8, until President Trump stated that he wouldn’t sign the bill without funding for border security.
These specific reforms were on Democrats’ to-do list well before they won back the House in November. In June 2018, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), of the renowned Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, introduced the “By the People Resolution,” which outlined the same priorities that would appear as the basis of the “For the People Act.” Similarly, in August, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced her “Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act,” which emphasized new government ethics requirements and put significant limitations on lobbying. In September, Drew Hammill, spokesman for then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, told Vox, “we’re already committed that [anti-corruption] will be one of the first things we address.”
One of the most innovative reforms provided for in the legislation is the six to one matching of small dollar donations ($200 or fewer) to congressional candidates. On its face, the matching program would potentially empower candidates to focus on the interests of average citizens as opposed to those of major donors or corporations. Some of the most outspoken and anti-corporate candidates in the 2018 midterms, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), also boasted that large percentages of their donations were from small donors. Indeed, 77 percent and 62 percent, respectively, of their funding was from small donations.
Sadly, the partisan implications of the For the People Act mean that it may not be passed, at least not in full. The new donation matching program would likely capitalize on the monumental surge in small donations that Democratic candidates received during the 2018 midterms. In the 69 most competitive House races, Democrats raised $46 million from small donors, compared to Republicans’ $15 million. Even among Republicans who would also advocate for campaign finance reform, the possibility of losing the Senate may cause them to shy away from such sweeping reforms.
Aside from some of the more notable and progressive measures the bill would take, such as establishing national, automatic voter registration and restoring voter rights to ex-felons,the bill also targets Trump directly by requiring the President and Vice President to disclose their tax returns for the past 10 years, something which Trump has repeatedly refused to do. This fact, compounded with evidence from government shutdown negotiations suggests that even if congressional Republicans believe in the ideals of the For the People Act, presidential stonewalling may prevent bipartisan support.
Therefore, Democrats’ best hope for reform may be dividing the For the People Act into smaller pieces of legislation, something which Sarbanes told Vox may likely end up being the case. Whether it is under the moniker of “draining the swamp” or government accountability, there is undoubtedly a demand for more checks on those in power. The lingering question is whether or not partisan politics will obscure this supposedly universal goal.