Blue Dogs Played Key Role In Passing Sweeping Election Overhaul Package

March 9, 2019 by Dan McCue
Christine Giroux exits the voting booth at Transit Town Hall Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Sibley County, Minn. The curtains, an ode the American flag, were sewn by a past election official. (Leila Navidi/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

The House passed along party lines a sweeping ethics and election overhaul bill Friday morning, setting up a showdown with Senate Republicans that will likely loom large in the 2020 elections.

“It’s about money in politics and how that destroys the confidence people have in the political process,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in the hours leading up to the vote.

After the bill passed by a margin of 234-193, she said the legislation “restores the people’s faith that government works for the public interest, the people’s interest, not the special interests.”

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the proposal was dead on arrival in that chamber.

“This is an issue that I’ve dealt with for decades,” McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill this week.

“This is a terrible proposal. It will not get any floor time in the Senate,” he said.

“For myself, I don’t see anything in here salvageable,” McConnell added. “This is a solution in search of a problem. What it really is is a bill designed to make it more likely Democrats win more often.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., responded to McConnell and others with similar views by saying “The right to vote is not a Republican or Democrat issue, it’s an American issue.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week. He told The Hill that he believes McConnell will have a difficult time keeping his conference unified in opposition to it given “how Republicans have responded individually to a lot of these issues.”

“There are pieces of it that many senators and House members have been working on for a long time, whether it’s making voting easier, whether it’s taking the dark money and big money out of politics, or whether it’s government ethics, there are a number of senators who have almost identical parts of their bills in this bill,” Udall said during the interview.

But far more compelling than the expected blowback from the Senate’s Republican leadership, is the behind-the-scenes role played by the moderate Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats in fashioning a reform bill that would handily pass in the House.

The bill, H.R. 1, includes a range of provisions aimed at tightening campaign finance rules, making it easier to vote and strengthening ethics standards. It would also strengthen election security and would require all presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.

In addition, the bill would make Election Day a holiday for federal workers and restore voting rights for ex-felons.

It also establishes a public financing system for congressional campaigns, created automatic national voter registration while expanding access to early and online registration, and would prohibit voter roll purges such as those seen in Georgia and Ohio last year, and increase federal support for state voter systems, including paper ballots to prevent fraud.

But when the bill was revealed to the Democratic Caucus, it originally funded political campaigns with taxpayer dollars. This was problematic for members of the Blue Dog Coalition, who strongly believe that tax payer dollars should go toward other priorities, such as infrastructure, rather than a campaign finance system that is still in need of fundamental reforms.

They believed the bill as initially written would put a burden on taxpayers to involuntarily fund increasingly costlier political campaigns in our country. This problem was flagged by members of the freshman class, including Blue Dog whip Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., during a December meeting with Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and other members of the coalition.

From that point on Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore, worked behind the scenes with Sarbanes and members of Democratic leadership to fix the public financing portion of H.R. 1.

In an effort to maintain leverage to negotiate with leadership, several members of the Coalition declined to co-sponsor the bill until a fix was found, and that strategy helped them push leadership to find an amenable solution.

An amendment sponsored by Murphy and Schrader that that was ultimately incorporated into the bill explicitly prohibits the use of taxpayer funds to finance political campaigns.

Instead, the bill that passed the House Friday creates a dedicated funding stream that will provide matching funds to help empower small donors and help amplify their voices in our political process—a goal these members have always supported.

“This is a clear example of how Blue Dogs are working behind the scenes with Congressional leaders to craft good policy,” Rep. Murphy said. “We’re not afraid to pressure our leaders, regardless of party, to find better outcomes for the good of the country and our constituents.”

“I campaigned to clean up corruption in Washington, not to funnel taxpayer dollars toward political campaigns,” Rep. Brindisi said. “I advocated strongly on behalf of my constituents to come up with a fix to the campaign finance piece of H.R. 1, and I’m glad that Rep. Sarbanes and leadership worked with us to make this happen.”

The White House said in a statement that the Democrats’ plan would “micromanage” elections that now are run largely by the states, and increase the powers of the Federal Election Commission chairman, “increasing the chances that the FEC becomes a partisan entity with undue power to shape and regulate elections nationwide.”

The administration also specifically objected to a provision of the bill that requires states to create independent commissions to redraw legislative districts after each census, and another that strengthens campaign donation disclosure laws.

Of the latter, the White House said the provisions would cull free speech by “creating requirements that would limit the ability of Americans to participate in advocacy without undue compliance costs and without fear of public reprisals.”

The statement also lambasted the bill’s ethics reforms, calling them “well-intentioned but misguided.”

Democrats were having none of this on Friday.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., took to Twitter to flatly reject Republican objections to the bill, saying “Mitch McConnell and his donors should not hold the sole power to decide our nation’s future.”

Likewise, Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., released a video on social media in which he said “We all know our political system is broken.

“Politicians have created a system that works for themselves and no one else,” he continued. “Today, the House just took a major step to fix Washington by voting YES on H.R. 1.”

“From campaign finance to redistricting reform, these actions are key to getting Washington working again,” said Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., co-chair of communications for the Blue Dog Coalition.

“H.R. 1 sends a clear message to the American people: We hear you, and we will work on your behalf to move this country forward,” Correa said. “Americans deserve increased transparency and they deserve the peace of mind to know that our elections are secure.

“Now it’s up to the Senate to demonstrate that we’re united in these shared American values,” he continued. “And now it’s up to the House to continue to act on the promises we’ve made to the American people: rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, lowering prescription drug prices, and increasing access to health care.”

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