ELECTION AND ETHICS REFORM

With Democrats taking over control of the U.S. House in January, there’s a wide range of issues they might tackle. Even if many of the bills they propose, and hopefully pass, don’t become law (because they aren’t passed by the Senate or are vetoed by President Trump), they will frame the debate going forward and into the 2020 elections. Furthermore, policies can become law by attaching bills or provisions to must-pass bills such as those funding the government. This is a tactic that has been used for many, many years and has been used frequently by Republicans over the last 12 years. Talking about substantive issues will shift the discussion to ideas from personalities and to meaningful, long-term policies to address important problems rather than short-term, idiosyncratic, one-off deal making.

Two key topics will be the focus of the first bill in the new House in January. They were the first two topics on my previous post’s list of possible issues for House Democrats to address. They are:

  • Elections: stop voter suppression, encourage voting, stop gerrymandering, and reform campaign financing (e.g., limit contributions, provide matching public funds, and require full disclosure of spending and donors)
  • Ethics: address conflicts of interest for Congress and all federal workers; stop the undue influence of special interests obtained through lobbying, the revolving door, and campaign expenditures

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the current leader of the House Democrats (and likely Speaker of the House come January), has stated that the first bill in the new House in January, known as H.R. 1, will address the restoration of democratic principles and procedures. It will address election and integrity issues where government of, by, and for the people has been undermined by wealthy individuals and corporations. The overall goal of the bill will be to end the ability of special interests to bend public policies to their benefit and against the interests of hard-working Americans and our democracy. This will restore Congress’s and the federal government’s abilities to enact policies that address the problems of average Americans. This is essential to renew the public’s faith in our democracy. [1]

Pelosi’s bill would do many of the things President Trump promised to do during his campaign when he stated he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. His actions and appointments have done nothing to drain the swamp and have probably made things worse.

This bill will address the huge amounts of money in our elections and the significant portion of that money that is “dark money” – money where the identity and interests of the true donor are hidden. The bill would require all organizations making donations to or expenditures on campaigns to disclose who their donors are. [2]

The proposed legislation would also take steps to increase the impact and number of small-dollar campaign donors. Incentives would be provided for individuals to make small campaign donations and the impact of those donations would be multiplied by matching them with public funds. Candidates who agree to accept these matching funds would have to limit the size of donations they accept and, perhaps, their overall spending.

The Pelosi bill would re-establish the Voting Rights Act’s protections of every citizen’s right to vote and would stop voter suppression. It would make it easier to vote through automatic and on-line voter registration while strengthening election infrastructure to prevent hacking and ensure accurate, auditable, tabulations of votes. To ensure that everyone’s vote has a fair chance of being meaningful, it would end gerrymandering, probably by requiring that an independent redistricting commission in each state draw congressional district boundaries.

The bill would strengthen ethics and conflict of interest laws governing Congress and federal government workers. It would ban members of Congress from serving on the boards of for-profit companies, which presents a clear conflict of interest. It would also enhance disclosure of who’s lobbying the federal government, so these efforts would be publicly known and not hidden in the shadows. And it would require Presidents to disclose their tax returns.

Pelosi’s bill would implement a code of ethics for Supreme Court Justices, who are currently exempt from the code of ethics that applies to other federal judges. [3]

It would close the revolving door of personnel between government positions and private sector jobs, which creates major conflicts of interest and is a major avenue for undue influence by special interests. It would prohibit employers from giving bonuses to reward employees for moving into public sector positions (as Wall St. has done repeatedly in the past). These individuals often go back to the same private sector employers later. The bonuses present the individuals with a significant conflict of interest from day one in their public sector job, particularly if the bonus is being paid out over time and, therefore, is being received when they are in their public sector role.

Tackling elections and ethics reform as a top priority makes sense for several reasons. First, these issues are very much on voters’ minds. Voters passed several ballot measures addressing them at the state and local levels in November, as was summarized in a previous blog post. Publicity about voting and ethical scandals in the Georgia election, as well as in Florida and North Carolina, have heightened the public’s awareness and concern about these issues. [4] In addition, candidates who refused corporate and PAC money fared very well in November. Noting incumbents’ acceptance of special interest money and linking it to specific votes was an effective tactic for beating them. [5]

Second, over the longer-term, addressing elections and ethics issues is critical to restoring democratic decision-making to government by ending the undue influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. This is essential to making progress on every other issue that would advance the public good. A fairer political process, where government is truly of, by, and for the people, is necessary to eliminate the system-rigging power of wealthy individuals and corporations. This will actually drain the Washington swamp. [6] Restoring faith in the fairness and integrity of our elections and policy making is a necessary first step toward restoring trust in our government.

If Democrats are willing to commit to a new code of conduct and to stand up for true democracy, they could reap the benefits of the current backlash against corrupt behavior by elected officials and the overall corruption of our political processes. There’s an opportunity to lead on re-establishing fairness and integrity in our politics. Some Democrats will resist this, fearing the loss of campaign donations and spending by wealthy individuals and corporations, but not doing so will risk losing a tremendous opportunity, both politically and for the good of our democracy.

I encourage you to communicate with your elected officials at the national and state levels about these issues. Nothing is more likely to persuade them than hearing from constituents who care about fair and ethical elections and behavior by government officials. I welcome your comments and feedback on steps you feel are needed to make our elections and policy making fairer and more responsive to regular Americans.

Thank you for your feedback on the list of topics in my previous post. In upcoming posts, I will delve into infrastructure investment and environmental policy issues since these were the two topics that were most frequently identified as priorities.

[1]      Pelosi, N., & Sarbanes, J., 11/25/18, “The Democratic majority’s first order of business: Restore democracy,” The Washington Post

[2]      Wertheimer, F., 10/10/18, “House Democratic challengers demand campaign-finance reforms,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/house-democratic-challengers-demand-campaign-finance-reforms)

[3]      Mascaro, L., 12/1/18, “House Democrats’ bill seeks reforms,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[4]      Carney, E. N., 11/29/18, “Read it and weep: Georgia lawsuit paints stark portrait of voter suppression,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/read-it-and-weep-georgia-lawsuit-paints-stark-portrait-voter-suppression)

[5]      Lardner, J., 11/30/18, “What the Democrats must do first,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/what-democrats-must-do-first)

[6]      Lardner, J., 11/30/18, see above

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