By Alana Abramson
March 8, 2019

Donald Trump used arguments about a “rigged system” and pledges to “drain the swamp” in Washington to win the presidency in 2016. But Democrats signaled strongly this week that they’ll use the same lines against him in the next election.

On Friday, House Democrats unanimously voted to pass a broad package of reforms on voting rights, campaign finance, election security and gerrymandering, among other topics, that would be the biggest changes to elections and anti-corruption statutes in years.

The bill is dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized it as a “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and said he would not bring it up for a vote.

But the ideas in it are almost certainly headed to the next Democratic presidential nominee’s platform, and, if the party is successful in 2020, could be one of the first issues Congress takes up.

The measures are a three-fer for Democrats: They address what the party’s leaders think are serious problems with the nation’s politics, they highlight areas where they can criticize Trump’s actions in office and they are attractive to the suburban moderates who helped them regain the House in the midterm elections.

“I do not know how you can have the hypocrisy and gall to support a presidential campaign that calls for the swamp to be drained and then say this [bill] is dead on arrival,” Rep. Max Rose, who unseated a Republican incumbent in a conservative New York City district last November, told reporters the day before the bill passed. “We are going to pose the question to the Republicans: are you on the side of the voters or the special interests?”

The bill, officially called the “For the People Act” and given the number H.R. 1 to signal its primary importance, passed strictly along party lines. It would require automatic and same-day voting registration across the country, revamp the stalled Federal Election Commission, require every organization involved in political lobbying to disclose its donors, give the states money to improve voting machines and seek to mitigate gerrymandering, among other things.

Pointedly, it also includes a stipulation that presidential and vice presidential candidates must disclose ten years worth of tax returns — a not so subtle shot at Trump, who has yet to release his returns and could soon be embroiled in litigation as House Democrats try to obtain them.

“The fact that many provisions are ones that would certainly, if they were in law, constrain some of the bad behavior we have seen from this administration I think just punctuates why we need these kinds of things,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, the primary architect of the bill.

Republicans unilaterally oppose the measures, with McConnell calling it a “power grab.”

“Democrats want to convince everyone that our republic is in crisis,” he said on the Senate floor this week. “But when you scratch the surface of these scare tactics, their two main complaints seem to be that Democrats don’t win enough elections and people Democrats don’t like also happen to have First Amendment rights.”

But Democrats argue that could backfire on the GOP. People like Rose, who face reelection in competitive districts, said that the themes in the bill aligned with key concerns their constituents voiced during the campaign.

“There was no single issue that was more resonant with the voters of the 7th district in New Jersey than this and … it’s completely bipartisan,” said New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski, who also ousted a Republican incumbent last November. “I look forward to being able to say, if we pass this in the House because the voters of the 7th district flipped the House, we can do the same thing in the Senate if voters in the United States make the change that New Jersey helped make with the House in 2108.”

All of this points to corruption being a key factor in the 2020 presidential race, particularly in the Democratic primary. Already, presidential candidates have stared incorporating themes from the bill into their campaign strategies. Several candidates, for instance, have already said they will forgo donations from corporate political action committees.

“[Candidates] will all be able to point to this kind of baseline standard of what strong pro democracy reform looks like which is H.R.1,” said Sarbanes. “The fact that when Democrats got the gavel back the first thing we did was put these reforms out there and say this is what we stand for? I think that will be a huge driver of the election narrative.”


Write to Alana Abramson at [email protected].

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