Is Congress About to Revolutionize Politics?
HR 1, The "For the People Act," is poised to pass the House and maybe the Senate. If enacted, it would transform elections, from voting to gerrymandering to campaign finance. So, will it pass?
Two weeks from now, the House of Representatives is going to take up the For the People Act (H.R. 1), an omnibus piece of legislation that seeks nothing less than a wholesale overhaul of the political process. Yesterday, its sponsors announced that the entire House Democratic caucus was supporting the bill, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the front of the list. Assuming it passes, it will go to the Senate where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is leading the charge for its passage. I think it’s fair to say this is the most revolutionary package of changes political reformers have ever gotten Congress to consider, and if it is enacted it will, as the Intercept’s Jon Schwartz wrote a few days ago, “change the basic structure of American politics, making it far more small-d democratic.”
Not only will the For the People Act make it easier to vote in a number of significant ways, it will reduce gerrymandering by requiring states to use independent redistricting commissions. And most important, it will change the core rules of campaign finance by amplifying the power of small donors, offering qualifying candidates who reach a threshold of core support a 6-1 match of all donations of up to $200. That will make a $25 donor worth $150 to a candidate, including in primaries, making it far more possible for candidates with lots of ordinary non-wealthy supporters to run viable campaigns for Congress. Just 13 members of the current Congress got more than half their campaign funds from people giving less than $200, meaning the vast majority of members are dependent on bigger donors, a group that is whiter, more male, older, richer and more conservative than the general population. (The total amount of public funds that a participating candidate could get is capped, but it would still be enough for challengers to be viable.)
The Act also modernizes voter registration by requiring all states to offer online registration, mandating that they automatically register voters when they provide information to state agencies like the DMV or social service providers, and also calls for same day voter registration for all federal elections. It beefs up funding for election security. It overhauls the Federal Election Commission, strengthening its enforcement process and most critically reducing the number of commissions from six to five, with no more than two from one party. It makes it illegal for retiring incumbents to personally pocket leftover campaign funds. It tightens lobbyist disclosure rules, strengthens executive and congressional ethics rules, and in a nice tip of the hat to The Former Guy, requires presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.
Finally, the For the People Act has a bunch of important provisions that aim to strengthen political and governmental transparency, starting with a section that enhances access to the thousands of reports that government bodies submit to Congress every year. It also requires more disclosure of all contacts political committees have with any representatives of foreign governments, tightens the prohibitions on campaign spending by foreign nationals (including the kinds of “issue ads” that foreign actors bought on Facebook to influence the 2016 election), and requires more transparency in general for targeted online political ads.
And, burrowing much closer to the heart of big money influence in politics, the Act takes direct aim at so-called “dark money,” repealing a rider that currently prevents the IRS from requiring nonprofit 501c3 organizations that engage in substantial campaign activities to disclose their donors, and requiring require any corporation, union, nonprofit, or similar organization spending more than $10,000 per election cycle to disclose all the donors who gave at least $10,000 (with a few carve-outs for funds with restricted uses or where disclosure could subject the donor to harassment or reprisal), and to also disclose all their disbursements over $1,000, along with every person who has a controlling interest in the organization.
It’s this last measure (along with the 6-1 public financing matching funds provision) that makes me rub my eyes in disbelief. Is this bill really about to pass Congress? Are all the richest and most powerful people and entities in America, who have long exercised undue influence thanks to their ability to give or marshal seven- or eight-figure level sums of money, about to slink away without a fight over these provisions? Requiring most organizations involved in the political arena to disclose their big donors would unmask a lot of fat-cats. Their influence has mushroomed since the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court opened the spigots to undisclosed political spending.
And it’s not only self-interested fat-cats funding dark money groups. A lot of political power players used dark money to arguably level the playing field against better funded incumbents. In 2018 and 2020, Democratic-leaning dark money groups outspent Republican-leaning groups, as Harry Cheadle and Will Greenberg report for BlueTent. One group, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, spent $141 million in the 2018 cycle on a variety of liberal-left causes, fueled by some massive anonymous givers, including one who gave a total of $51.7 million, Politico’s Scott Bland and Maggie Severns reported in 2019. Another anonymous donor gave $26.7 million; a third gave $10 million. Sixteen Thirty’s 2019 tax filing shows 18 anonymous donations of anywhere from $1 million to $33 million.
Forcing politically motivated big donors into the light is a good thing. So is shifting power in the financing of campaigns toward small donors. The fact that H.R. 1 is on the verge of passage is historic. But the history of efforts to fundamentally reduce the power of big money in politics will keep a cynic well-fed, because at the end of the day, incumbent politicians are generally wary of changing a system that got them elected. And every Member of Congress is an expert on campaign finance, and will be asking themselves if a 6-1 matching system is about to lead to their own unseating in a future primary. (Dark money donors, I’m sorry to say, will find other loopholes to hide their mega-donations if they are forced by this law to disclose more.)
Here in New York state, which has some of the weakest campaign finance rules in the country, Democrats regularly sponsored and voted for bills not unlike H.R. 1. Then, in 2019, having finally achieved a take-over of the state senate (along with its long-standing dominance of the state assembly), some of those very Democrats literally “forgot” that they even had previously sponsored any such bills. (My own state senator, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, basically said so to my face that spring in a monthly meeting of our Indivisible group, and brought her colleague, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, along, so he could explain why he wasn’t in favor of public matching funds for small donors—a measure he too had previously supported when there was no chance of it passing.) Instead of fighting for strong reform, they gave the job of fixing the system to a commission that ultimately pushed a public matching funds program forward, along with very weak reductions in campaign contribution limits.
The real fight for the For the People Act is going to play out in the Senate, which Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, is a sworn enemy of anything that might reduce the role of big money in politics. He is going to make all kinds of spurious claims about the proposed law, suggesting that it violates the First Amendment or puts government in the position of picking winners and losers. Those arguments should go nowhere…but with the Senate evenly divided, it will only take one Democratic renegade to sink the bill. Hopefully that won’t happen, but if it does, I bet there will be a fair number of other big money Democrats breathing a sigh of relief.
Let me put it this way. The For the People Act, if passed, would result in revolutionary changes to the political status quo. Do you feel like the forces are massed to make sure it passes, or is Lucy about to pull the football away, again?
In Other News
-We’ve known for a long time that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks his company is more like a country than a regular business, but his decision to nuke Australia by keeping Facebook users there from accessing news sites is the most significant move he’s ever taken using his platform power to strong-arm a whole country. This column by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write the Interpreter newsletter for The New York Times, sums up my concerns about that pretty well. (For a countering and equally intelligent take, Casey Newton delivers, as always.)
-The American Prospect has asked a group of academics and organizers to respond to Theda Skocpol and Caroline Tervo’s article on Indivisible; my response is here alongside comments from the AFL-CIO’s Michael Podhorzer and Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, an Indivisible organizer from Roanoke, Virginia. I’ll have more to say on this once the whole package of comments is posted.
-Secretive Democratic billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs has hired former Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy as a senior adviser to her Emerson Collective (after maxing out to Kennedy in his ill-fated attempt to primary incumbent Senator Ed Markey), Teddy Schliefer reports for Recode. She also quietly invested in Civis Analytics, the Democratic data firm backed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Schliefer also notes.
-Support for a third-party has risen since The Former Guy left office, Gallup finds. The shift appears to be entirely among Republicans, 63% of whom now favor the idea, up from 40% last September.
-A newly released letter unearthed by the National Security Archive shows that the 1983 NATO exercise Able Archer brought the US and USSR closer to nuclear war than has been previously understood. This is one of those arcane subjects that most of us pay no attention to (or quite rationally would rather not think about), but as former nuclear analyst Daniel Ellsberg explained in his brilliant book The Doomsday Machine, the Soviets quite understandably feared that the US was planning a nuclear first strike and put their own forces on high alert; in 1983, we were lucky that American commanders on the ground didn’t respond with more threatening moves of their own.
-The student and the algorithm: What one promising pupil had to go through when the UK canceled its traditional end-of-high-school exams and gave the task of ranking students to a computer program, by Tom Lamont in the Guardian.
-New York City’s vaccination program gets a searing and useful critique from BetaNYC’s executive director Noel Hidalgo, who excoriates Mayor Bill de Blasio for failing to tap the talent inside his own building to help build a more accessible outreach program. “While the Mayor has said he would build a bridge between the tale of two cities, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has built a wall between the vaccine and those who are not digitally savvy, those who have a disability or don’t read english fluently, those who don’t have the means of transportation, time, or energy to figure out the city’s myriad of vaccine resources,” he says in testimony before the city council.
If you are an academic or an organizer, set aside time this weekend to soak up Trebor Scholz’s essay in Public Seminar on the vital role of “community-engaged scholars.”