Democrats in the House of Representatives have led off the new session with passage of an ambitious, omnibus legislative proposal called the For the People Act, numbered H.R. 1.
In announcing the bill, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer hailed it as “landmark legislation that we think will renew Americans’ faith in government.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that it will “restore the promise of our nation’s democracy.”
Indeed, HR1 is fairly bursting with good, democratic intentions, from campaign finance reform to protecting voters’ rights and raising the ethical standards of American politics.
What patriotic American is not in favor of all these things?
However, a careful look at HR1 will explain why not everyone in Washington is embracing it as the cure-all for what ails the country.
As things now stand, the bill may not even come to a vote in the Senate. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it so bluntly, “Because I get to decide what we vote on.”
Republican senators may be patriotic, but they are not enthused about the Democratic vision of what the future should look like.
What don’t they like about HR1?
A number of things, beginning with the way it was drafted. Despite all the talk about bipartisanship, the Democratic leadership did not deign to engage the Republicans in efforts at electoral reform. Had they done so, they would have had to revise some of the provisions to get their support, but would also have had a better chance of actually seeing some of their favorite ideas become law.
All the bill’s major provisions have merit — and major problems, too. For example, the part on campaign financing. While aimed at that laudable — and eternally elusive — goal, that of limiting the influence of big money on politics, the bill’s disclosure requirements could have a chilling effect on the willingness of citizens to contribute to campaigns at all. In some instances, it would mean public disclosure of the names and addresses of donors who may not have even known that the organization they were giving to was funding a certain campaign.
You don’t have to be a billionaire reactionary to object to this. As the ACLU — an organization that is as liberal as it gets — put it, “It is unfair to hold donors responsible for every communication in which an organization engages.”
Furthermore, there is legitimate concern over the expanded role the bill sees for the federal government in the electoral process. Like the clause in HR1 calling for a 6-to-1 federal campaign match on small donations.
As the conservative editors of National Review asked, “Are Democrats truly worried about the influence of ‘big money’ over politicians, or do they simply want to ensure that the government is the donor?” And that the government (in the best of all possible worlds, controlled by Democrats) will call as many of the shots as possible in elections.
“The most important bill that the democrat socialist majority has is to take more of your money and give it to the politicians who want to vote for this bill. How ironic,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on the floor ahead of the vote.
Gerrymandering — the drawing of voting districts to give unfair advantage to one party over another — is another of the evils targeted by HR1. But it does so by investing an independent commission with authority over districting, thereby stripping states of the right to draw their own congressional districts. While this may seem a trifling matter to some, it is a matter of constitutional law.
Another matter of constitutional law is HR1’s provision for allowing “formerly incarcerated people who have paid their debts to society” to vote. Unfortunately, this high-minded proposal contradicts the 14th Amendment, which grants states the right to prohibit or restrict the voting rights of felons.
As mentioned above, there are items in the bill that have merit and that Republicans could have voted for. Among them, automatic voter registration and an expansion of early voting. But as long as they are packaged with so many items that Republicans will not vote for, the bill is doomed in the Senate.
The way the bill was put forth belies the bipartisan pretensions of the Democratic party, which, presumably, anticipated the negative reaction of Republicans. However, they might not have anticipated that such an antagonistic legislative showpiece would have the effect of uniting the rival party.
“We really did unite everyone in opposition to this and pushed hard against it,” a House source told The Hill. “Obviously, we’ll lose the vote, but I think there’s satisfaction among members that we had a cohesive and unified message against this. And working with McConnell and getting him engaged against this was huge.”
As such, it will not restore trust in our nation’s democracy. It will not even restore trust in the House and Senate. Because the For the People Act wasn’t really for the people. It was only for the people in the Democratic party.