By Ella Nilsen
House Democrats have passed HR 1, their signature anti-corruption and voting rights reform bill, for the second time in two years. But even though their party now holds the majority in the Senate, the bill has a tough road ahead of it.
As the numeral suggests, HR 1 and its Senate component S 1 — also known as the For the People Act — are Democrats’ first legislative priority. The sweeping democracy reform bill has been top of the list since House Democrats first took back the majority in the 2018 midterms and immediately set out to expand voting rights and curb the influence of money in politics.
There’s a lot of ground covered in its nearly 800 pages, but some of its key points are creating a national system for automatic voter registration, putting in transparency requirements for political advertising, and instituting nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end partisan gerrymandering.
Polling back in 2019 and now shows the bill is broadly popular with the public, but it went nowhere in the Republican-led Senate in 2019. Even with the current slim Democratic control (a 50-50 Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker), it will be incredibly difficult to pass with the required 60 votes to skirt the Senate filibuster. The politics are even tighter this time around; some moderate House Democrats who voted for the bill before pushed more aggressively for changes in the current bill.
The bill’s future in the Senate is also untested, as then-Majority Leader McConnell never allowed it to come to the floor in 2019.
“If Mitch McConnell is not willing to provide 10 Republicans to support this landmark reform, I think Democrats are going to step back and reevaluate the situation,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), the author of HR 1, told Vox in a recent interview. “There’s all manner of ways you could redesign the filibuster so [the bill] would have a path forward.”
One path that’s being discussed is partially amending Senate filibuster rules to allow democracy reform legislation like HR 1 to advance on a simple majority vote and therefore potentially be able to pass on a party-line vote. That would be different from fully blowing up the filibuster, but it still could get pushback from Senate institutionalists even in the Democratic Party like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a staunch advocate of keeping the filibuster in place.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the chair of the Senate Rules Committee, which will mark up the bill and move it forward, said she wants to bring the bill to the floor and see what the support for it is before she moves on to potential filibuster reform.
“We’ll go to the floor; that’s when we see where we are,” Klobuchar told Vox in an interview, saying her committee will look to see, “is there filibuster reform that could be done generally or specifically?”
Democrats are hoping the 2020 election gives them an argument for this bill. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans in many states were given more options and flexibility to vote through the mail or with in-person early voting. The results were a record 158.4 million ballots cast; 2020 presidential election turnout was about 7 percentage points higher than in 2016, according to Pew Research Center.
HR 1, among other initiatives, would cement many of those temporary expansions. And recent polling from the progressive firm Data for Progress showed the bill more broadly is popular across parties and supported by a majority of Democratic, independent, and Republican voters. The poll found that 67 percent of national likely voters supported HR 1, including 56 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of independents, and 77 percent of Democrats.
Republican legislatures in multiple states, however, are moving in the opposite direction. Per the Brennan Center, at least 33 states have already introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 restrictive bills to re-tighten voting requirements, including Georgia — the state that gave Democrats narrow control of the Senate. The US Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments in an Arizona case that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act, limiting protections for minority voters around the country.
Klobuchar told Vox that in past years when parties lost national elections, they’d assess where they went wrong. Republicans, she added, are doubling down on restricting voting access.
“These guys, instead of doing that, are saying let’s just make it so less people vote, that’s how we do this,” Klobuchar said.
Newly proposed voting restrictions, taken with the fact that 30 state legislatures are controlled by Republicans — compared to 18 controlled by Democrats — mean that Republicans have more power to redraw congressional maps in the 2021 redistricting process. Absent nonpartisan redistricting commissions (which HR 1 contains), Republicans can once again redraw maps to give themselves the edge in the 2022 midterms and beyond.
“If we can get this done and into law in the next few months, there will be enough time to implement many of these things in time for the 2022 midterm election, including how reforming how this redistricting is done,” Sarbanes said.
What’s in the bill
The For the People Act weighs in at close to 800 pages. Broadly, it can be broken down into three buckets: expanding voting rights, implementing campaign finance reform, and beefing up ethics laws for members of Congress.
Here are some major points in the bill, broken down by category:
- Creates new national automatic voter registration that asks voters to opt out rather than opt in, ensuring more people will be signed up to vote. Requires chief state election officials to automatically register eligible unregistered citizens.
- Requires each state to put online options for voter registration, correction, cancellation, or designating party affiliation.
- Requires at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections; early voting sites would be open for at least 10 hours per day. The bill also prohibits states from restricting a person’s ability to vote by mail, and requires states to prepay postage on return envelopes for mail-in voting.
- Establish independent redistricting commissions in states as a way to draw new congressional districts and end partisan gerrymandering in federal elections.
- Prohibits voter roll purging and bans the use of non-forwardable mail being used as a way to remove voters from rolls.
- Restores voting rights to people convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences; however, the bill doesn’t restore rights to felons currently serving sentences in a correctional facility.
- Establishes public financing of campaigns, powered by small donations. This has long been Sarbanes’s vision: The federal government would provide a voluntary 6-1 match for candidates for president and Congress, which means for every dollar a candidate raises from small donations, the federal government would match it six times over. The maximum small donation that could be matched would be capped at $200. This program isn’t funded by taxpayer dollars; instead, the money would come from adding a 4.75 percent fee on criminal and civil fines, fees, penalties, or settlements with banks and corporations that commit corporate malfeasance (think Wells Fargo).
- Supports a constitutional amendment to end Citizens United.
- Passes the DISCLOSE Act, pushed by Rep. David Cicilline and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats from Rhode Island. This would require super PACs and “dark money” political organizations to make their donors public.
- Passes the Honest Ads Act, championed by Sens. Klobuchar and Mark Warner (VA), which would require Facebook and Twitter to disclose the source of money for political ads on their platforms and share how much money was spent. (A Facebook spokesman told Vox the company has publicly supported Honest Ads Act since 2018).
- Discloses any political spending by government contractors and slows the flow of foreign money into the elections by targeting shell companies.
- Restructures the Federal Election Commission to have five commissioners instead of six, in order to break political gridlock at the organization.
- Prohibits any coordination between candidates and super PACs.
- Requires the president and vice president to disclose 10 years of his or her tax returns. Candidates for president and vice president must also do the same.
- Stops members of Congress from using taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment or discrimination cases.
- Gives the Office of Government Ethics the power to do more oversight and enforcement and implement stricter lobbying registration requirements. These include more oversight of foreign agents by the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
- Creates a new ethics code for the US Supreme Court, ensuring all branches of government are impacted by the new law.
Democrats have a very narrow window to pass the bill
HR 1 could be a last-ditch effort for Democrats to be competitive in House races, if they can get it through Congress and to President Joe Biden’s desk.
On Thursday, Biden released a statement commending House Democrats for passing the bill, and promising to sign it into law “after it has passed through the legislative process, so that together we can strengthen and restore American democracy for the next election and all those to come.” But the bill’s real test will be whether it can get through the Senate.
Senate Democrats aren’t ready to blow up the Senate filibuster yet, but they’re also finding ways to skirt it to pass major pieces of legislation.
This week, Democrats are using budget reconciliation to pass Biden’s current Covid-19 stimulus bill through the Senate with just 51 votes. There’s a good chance they’ll do the same thing for Biden’s forthcoming infrastructure plan, depending on how big that package is and how many Republicans will support it.
But Democrats can only use budget reconciliation twice, and it can only be used for things that directly impact the federal budget. Voting rights and anti-corruption measures don’t fall into that category, and HR 1’s authors are under no impression it could get through via budget reconciliation. That leaves them with a narrower set of options for HR 1, and even fewer options for other priorities like passing universal background checks or immigration reform.
Even though Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have repeatedly said they won’t get rid of the Senate filibuster, some of their Democratic colleagues are hopeful they might change their minds if the party’s agenda meets repeated opposition from Republicans.
“You bring it to the floor a few times and you let them obstruct it and you see what effect bad-faith obstruction has on some members’ views about the filibuster,” Sen. Whitehouse told reporters recently. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t want to get rid of the filibuster’; it’s another thing after you’ve met repeated bad-faith obstruction to say, ‘Okay, this is getting out of hand.’”
That might be too optimistic. When asked by reporters again this week if there was a point where he’d change his mind about the filibuster, Manchin yelled, “Never!” according to the Hill’s Jordain Carney.
“Jesus Christ! What don’t you understand about never?” Manchin added.
Short of blowing up the filibuster, Senate Democrats will need to keep finding loopholes to pass their agenda.