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Should tackling political corruption be House Democrats’ first priority?

Democrats’ first bill sounds a lot like what Rep. Dean Phillips campaigned on.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed the “transformative freshman class” in pushing for the legislation.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Far from being drained, the Washington Swamp at the beginning of 2019 seems swampier than ever: In the last year, Cabinet secretaries have resigned under clouds of corruption, sitting members of Congress have been indicted, and outgoing lawmakers waited mere hours after leaving office to ink lucrative lobbying contracts.

That’s why the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House has introduced, as its first order of business, a bill that proposes a sweeping range of reforms to the political system, from curbing campaign spending to banning lawmakers from serving on corporate boards. Entitled the For the People Act — or simply called “H.R. 1” in legislative-ese to denote its primacy in the majority’s agenda — the bill is being branded as nothing less than the cure for a broken democracy.

You’d think that in the current climate, an ambitious anti-corruption campaign on Capitol Hill would break through the noise and earn a warm reception from an American public that, per a 2015 Gallup poll, overwhelmingly believes that Congress is corrupt, out of touch, and beholden to special interests.

But Rep. Dean Phillips, Democrat of Minnesota’s 3rd District and a co-sponsor of H.R. 1, has found things to be more difficult. “I’m disappointed it hasn’t received more fanfare, given its importance,” Phillips said of the bill a few days after he appeared at a press conference with newly minted Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other advocates to gin up attention for their effort.

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The Democrats’ bill has attracted notice in the D.C. media and policy world, but it hasn’t been hailed and scrutinized in the way that big legislative campaigns, like the Affordable Care Act and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, have been.

A big reason why: Republican support for the effort appears thin, and in a divided Congress, that’s enough to turn a serious bill into simply a statement of principle. Democrats like Phillips say they’re intent on passing the legislation, but if it fails — which is likely — the real impact of the new majority’s first big move will be in how much it burnishes the clean-government image Democrats are going for ahead of a 2020 clash with President Trump.

A mandate from voters

The story of why House Democrats are immediately taking up a slate of good government and democracy proposals — after coming to power in a 2018 midterm that was seemingly all about pocketbook issues like health care, all the time — has a lot to do with people like Phillips.

In his challenge to GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen in the suburban 3rd District, Phillips ran with a relentless focus on getting money out of politics and eradicating the influence of special interests in Washington. A wealthy heir of a Minnesota liquor dynasty and an entrepreneur himself, Phillips significantly self-funded his campaign, but he also shunned contributions from political action committees, lawmakers, and lobbyists — a pledge that is now becoming something of a litmus test for candidates in the Democratic Party.

These themes became so popular that by October 2018, more than 100 Democratic candidates for Congress, including Phillips and fellow freshmen Reps. Angie Craig and Ilhan Omar, signed a letter demanding that the first act of the new majority be legislation to reform campaign finance, ethics and voting laws.

Rep. Dean Phillips: “I’m disappointed it hasn’t received more fanfare, given its importance.”
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Rep. Dean Phillips: “I’m disappointed it hasn’t received more fanfare, given its importance.”
The eventual legislative product of that demand encompasses priorities in that broad range of issues: H.R. 1 would require “dark money” organizations to make their donors public, prohibit taxpayer money from going to sexual harassment settlements on Capitol Hill and institute automatic voter registration, among other things.

Party leaders and advocates credit the energetic freshmen class of House Democrats, 67 members strong, in making these issues the new majority’s first priority. In her remarks introducing H.R. 1 at a press conference last week, Pelosi hailed the “transformative freshman class” in pushing for the legislation.

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at advocacy group Public Citizen, said the 2018 election showed the public understands the system is broken, and argued their votes constitute a mandate for change. “We see corruption everywhere we look,” she said. “That’s reflected in who ran for Congress, and who won.”

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Meanwhile, some of the causes most vocally championed by some of the Democrats’ new stars, like Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, appear to lack a clear path forward in the House. There is far from a consensus plan of action in the majority on progressive priorities like expanding Medicare, reforming the immigration system, and tackling sweeping climate change.

According to Steven Schier, professor of politics at Carleton College, moving quickly on good-government issues is a “high-favorability, low-salience” move for Democrats. “People aren’t happy with the direction of the country or the tone of politics,” Schier said. “The problem is, most of the public doesn’t view this as the burning issue before the country.”

Public polling paints a mixed picture on that point. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll completed before the midterm election, three-quarters of Americans said ending corruption and special interest influence was a top campaign issue, with only economic issues commanding a greater share of voter concern. A Gallup poll from Nov. 2 found that for 80 percent of Americans, health care was their top issue, followed closely by the economy and immigration.

Still, “getting money out of politics” is a largely uncontroversial policy goal, and it’s tempting to view Democrats’ focus on this theme as an early step toward a strategy of charting a safe path in the majority. But the devil is in the details, and progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups have found plenty to like in the details of H.R. 1.

The legislation includes items that are being warmly welcomed by people far to Phillips’ left: a top-line proposal, for example, would reintroduce public financing of political campaigns through a scheme that would match private contributions of up to $100 with up to $600 of taxpayer money.

Sarah Jones, a left-wing writer at New York Magazine, praised H.R. 1 and its public-financing provision in a recent column. “There are dumber ways,” she writes, “for the Democratic Party to herald its gradual revival.”

Is it about Trump?

Though Trump ran on “draining the swamp” in 2016 and even promised a slate of lobbying and ethics reforms during his campaign, many advocates for H.R. 1 are not holding their breath for the president’s support.

Trump’s new ethics guidelines, which he signed into law as an executive order in 2017, implemented a “lobbying ban” that undid stronger protections that existed during Barack Obama’s administration. The ban does prohibit administration officials from lobbying the agency they worked for, but no other part of the government, for five years after they leave office. (There are no such barriers for the reverse of that: the current acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, is a former lobbyist for the coal industry.)

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If Trump’s support for a robust ethics package — one that includes mandatory disclosure of tax records by U.S. presidents, like the Democrats’ bill does — is doubtful, proponents of H.R. 1 have a more immediate obstacle: Senate Republicans. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has long been a vocal proponent of loosening regulations on campaign finance. Many on the right believe the bill’s proposals on public financing and curbing PAC political spending would constitute an unacceptable expansion of regulation on political speech.

The GOP leader has already said the House Democrats’ big push is “not going to go anywhere.” H.R. 1 has, to date, earned no Republican co-sponsors in the House.

Others, meanwhile, believe H.R. 1 does not go far enough: Richard Painter, the ethics counsel to George W. Bush and a former DFL candidate for U.S. Senate, has broadcast criticism of the bill over social media, arguing that it doesn’t include adequately tough conflict-of-interest provisions for members of Congress.

Phillips told MinnPost he is optimistic that some Republicans might get on board with the bill — or parts of it, at least. H.R. 1 includes language that could possibly advance as separate pieces of legislation such as, for example, the Honest Ads Act, which was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2017 and aims to make online political communication more transparent.

To most Democrats who support it, H.R. 1 is intended to send a strong message about what they support, and to offer voters a glimpse of what they’d prioritize if they were in control of Washington.

“As much as anything, it’s a significant statement of principles for the Democratic Party,” Phillips said. “It lays a foundation for what we intend to advocate for, and work very hard on, in the 116th Congress and beyond.”

photo of president donald trump seated at conference table
Though President Donald Trump promised a slate of lobbying and ethics reforms during his campaign, many advocates for H.R. 1 are not exactly holding their breath for the president’s support.
Observers like Schier, however, view the legislation differently: as a strategic move that not only broadcasts Democratic policy principles, but makes Trump and the GOP look bad ahead of the 2020 presidential elections. He says that advancing H.R. 1 is a chance for Democrats to say, “We’re elevating the dialogue, we’re above Trump — by implication, we’re showing how low he’s fallen.”

Democratic officials are quick to disabuse of the notion that their bill is simply a response to Trump and his scandal-laden administration. In her remarks introducing H.R 1, Speaker Pelosi did not name the president once.

“There’s no question that this president has inspired parts of this legislation, but by no means is it because of him alone,” Phillips said. “I would argue that had he not been elected, these issues would be as important to me and to many people in the country.”

Public Citizen’s Gilbert agrees, and she was reluctant to say Democrats should use H.R. 1 to make Trump and the GOP squirm.

“Showing [Democrats] stand for these reforms is more important than showing they’re against Trump,” she said. “This shows a real understanding that, if we don’t win on this, we can’t win on anything else… Without passing something that shows [lawmakers] get that government is broken, people don’t believe you can get anything done on other progressive priorities.”