House Votes for Sweeping Ethics Overhaul That GOP Plans to Block

(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats voted Friday for sweeping campaign ethics and voting rights legislation that’s drawn praise from transparency advocates and blistering criticism from Republicans, who have pledged it will never become law.

The legislation, passed on a 234-193 party-line vote, marks a defining moment for the new Democratic House majority that promised to bring greater openness to government and elections.

Republicans who control the Senate have said they won’t take up the measure, and President Donald Trump threatened a veto. The GOP argued that the measure was designed to help Democrats win elections and that it would block efforts to prevent voting fraud.

Democrats last year used the legislation as a key element in their campaigns, promising to reduce the impact of money in politics and make it easier to register to vote and cast ballots. It is likely to feature prominently in their re-election bids as they seek to maintain the House majority in 2020 and oust Trump.

The broad package of bills known as H.R. 1 now goes to the Senate, where Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has criticized the effort as the “Democrat politician protection act.” Not all of the package’s detractors are conservatives; the American Civil Liberties Union has misgivings about some aspects of it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said restoring confidence in government must proceed before advancing on other priorities, such as increasing infrastructure spending, lowering the price of prescription drugs or addressing climate change.

“The public belief that we can do that depends on our passing legislation to amplify the voices of the American people and reduce the voice of dark, special interest money that has influenced decisions in Congress before,” Pelosi said.

Democrats’ effort to focus public attention on the legislation this week was hijacked by controversy over remarks by first-year House Democrat Ilhan Omar of Minnesota that some colleagues described as anti-Semitic. After days of fighting over how to handle the matter, the House Thursday voted to condemn various kinds of bigotry.

Republicans for weeks have mocked the ethics and voting rights legislation. McConnell of Kentucky said it “aims to give Washington, D.C., vast new control over elections, give tax dollars to political campaigns, and give election lawyers more opportunities to determine the outcome of elections.”

“This sprawling, 622-page doorstop is never going to become law,” McConnell said. “I certainly don’t plan to even bring it to the floor here in the Senate.” He added: “There are always improvements and reforms to be made -- but this isn’t it.”

The White House said in a statement that the measure represented an “overreach of federal power that would violate constitutional principles of separation of powers, federalism, and freedom of speech.”

The ACLU published a letter opposing certain elements of the legislation, including provisions that would require political messages from outside groups -- including the ACLU -- to disclose their top donors. The group also raised concerns the measure could prevent policy advocacy groups from working with political campaigns.

Another provision would limit the ability of public officials to advocate or lobby for causes in their area of expertise for two years after they leave their posts. The ACLU said the provision restricts freedom of speech and the right to petition to government.

“While there are many aspects H.R. 1 that we strongly support, the provisions outlined above must be changed to avoid unconstitutionally burdening political speech,” the ACLU said in a letter.

More than 70 amendments were voted on the House floor this week, some of which addressed concerns about unintended consequences of the legislation, which addresses a wide range of matters including the structure of the Federal Election Commission and lobbyist disclosures.

One provision would provide government matching funds for campaign contributions under $200, and lawmakers in both parties have warned that unscrupulous candidates might try to exploit it. The goal of the provision is to give more clout to modest contributions and counter the influence of larger ones from wealthy individuals. An amendment clarified that the matching funds would come from fees and penalties, not directly from taxpayers.

H.R.1 would require the president and vice president to disclose tax returns from any corporation, partnership, or trust they own. Democrats have been demanding that Trump release his tax returns since the 2016 campaign.

The bill would prohibit foreign nationals from directing political expenditures of U.S. companies and political committees.

Democrats spent much of the past week highlighting different aspects of the legislation -- chief among them restoring anti-discrimination provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act designed to require some states and localities to seek federal approval before changing voting procedures.

The goal is to protect against practices like restrictions on early voting, limiting the number of polling places and reducing bilingual voting material. Some states pursued these practices after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which freed all or parts of 15 states of the federal preclearance requirement.

The bill also would automatically register voters when they seek government services such as getting a driver’s license. This measure has sparked security concerns about centralizing voting systems in a way that would make them more vulnerable to hacking.

Convicted felons would be allowed to vote after serving their sentences, and the legislation would make it easier for people to register to vote.

Democrats say these measures would address complaints from voters who say their voices have been drowned out in a system increasingly beholden to rich donors.

“Congress cannot meaningfully address the nation’s significant challenges without first recognizing and acknowledging the undue influence of special interests and our politics,” said Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat.

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