HR 1 Is Enormous and Necessary

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The politics of HR 1, the House Democrats’ gargantuan effort to bolster the basic functions of American democracy, are controversial. The facts underlying the legislation’s most important provisions are substantially less so.

Many of these ideas have been promoted in previous legislation. Not every proposal in the bill is vital, or even necessary. Some, such as a call for public subsidies of campaigns, are familiar sources of partisan rancor. But most of the provisions in this vast bill address genuine weaknesses in American democracy and attempt to make the system fairer, more transparent and, in light of the multifaceted Russian attack on the election of 2016, more secure.

RELATED Repairing the Machinery of U.S. Democracy

Registration and Voting

The case for easing registration, with automatic registration, same-day registration and other conveniences, is readily grasped, as is the argument for easier voting, including early voting and vote-by-mail. Encouraging citizens to become voters enlarges the electorate and binds more Americans to the democratic project.

The bill would make purges of voter rolls more difficult by requiring more stringent checks before a registered voter’s name can be removed, and by requiring a state’s cross-check of names on out-of-state voter databases to be completed no later than 6 months before an election.

It also seeks to reinforce the Voting Rights Act with a congressional finding that racial discrimination in voting is a continuing problem. In his 2013 majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the law’s formula targeting select states was outdated and failed to reflect progress toward racial equality. Freed from previous obligations under the law, Texas, North Carolina and other states promptly mounted additional obstacles to voting. HR 1 calls for the restoration of “protections for voters against practices in States and localities plagued by the persistence of voter disenfranchisement.”    

To make voting more convenient for more people, HR 1 would make Election Day a federal holiday.  

Might there be a legitimate argument for making voting more difficult? Over the past decade and more, the Republican Party has waged a campaign to do just this — arguing, in effect, that easier voting means more illegal voting. But this claim has been fully discredited. No cases of significant in-person voter fraud have been documented; few are supported by even the flimsiest anecdotal evidence. (Evidence of fraud in a North Carolina congressional race concerns the alleged actions of a political operative, not of voters, and has no bearing on the ease of in-person voting.)

In a landmark federal case in Kansas last year, the nation’s leading proponents of “voter fraud” were asked to produce evidence of their claims, and failed to. The committee assembled by President Donald Trump to investigate his allegations of voter fraud disbanded after coming up with nothing, just like a previous commission established under President George W. Bush. One academic study found 31 credible cases of voter fraud in a pool of 1 billion votes cast. In short, it’s vanishingly rare, and offers no good reason to oppose easier registration and voting.

Nonpartisan Redistricting

Partisan gerrymanders carve legislative districts to suit the ambitions of one party or another. Surprisingly, they have long been legal, even though they serve to disenfranchise voters by shifting power from the electorate to political incumbents.

Gaming the system is always tempting in politics, but partisan redistricting exceeds the bounds of what’s acceptable. When a party that receives less than half the vote in a state can rely on gerrymandered districts to deliver it almost two-thirds of the state’s legislative seats, as happened in Wisconsin, it undermines faith in the system and enshrines minority rule.

HR 1 would require states to use independent commissions, with commission members drawn randomly from both partisan and independent candidates, to draw their congressional districts. Independent commissions generally work well where they’ve already been tried — in Arizona, California and elsewhere.  

Federal Election Commission

The bill would expand disclosure requirements on political spending and restructure the Federal Election Commission to help it regulate such spending effectively.

It would combat dark money by requiring super-PACs and other conduits of large, unregulated donations to disclose donors who contribute more than $10,000; establish a system of matching public finance for small donations to campaigns for federal offices; require digital platforms to create a database where online political advertising can be tracked ($1.4 billion was spent on such ads in 2016); and require extra disclosure from government contractors, presidential inauguration committees and publicly traded companies.

The FEC is so badly broken that it currently exercises minimal influence over the campaign practices that it was designed to police. When fully staffed, which it often isn’t, the FEC has three Democratic commissioners and three Republicans. In decades past, this caused conflict and gridlock. Things have gotten worse thanks to partisan polarization and the shifting of the Republican Party’s position on campaign regulation from tepid support to outright hostility, including a full reversal of party leaders’ previous support for broad campaign finance disclosure.

The bill would reduce the FEC from six members to five. The president would be restricted from appointing more than two members from the same political party. A five-member commission with at least one member who is neither Democrat nor Republican would have a better chance of reaching majority decisions. (With luck, it would also be more inclined to follow the recommendations of the FEC’s professional staff.) In addition to being confirmed by the Senate, as now, members of the commission would be selected with input from a “blue-ribbon” advisory panel and serve a six-year term with no reappointments.

Campaign rules are necessary to keep political actors from taking unfair or criminal advantage — but rules are useless unless enforced. Proper enforcement demands a functional FEC.

Election Security

Securing the nation’s 100,000 polling stations, each subject to the laws, practices and technology of whichever state and locality it happens to be found in, is no small task.

The bill would enlist the Department of Homeland Security to perform security risk assessments for states, and supply grants to states to upgrade their ballot security, including making sure that electronic voting machines produce a paper trail that can be audited following an election. It would require the department to share threat information with targeted states, and encourage states to train the necessary staff. A bounty program would be initiated to reward those who identify cyber weaknesses in election systems.

Vendors of election infrastructure would have to meet national standards and be vetted. And the federal government would fund research and development of more reliable election security.

The president would be responsible for producing a national strategy to protect against cyberattacks, malicious influence operations, disinformation campaigns and related efforts seeking to undermine the “security and integrity” of democratic institutions.

Russia proved in 2016 how far an adversary would go in seeking to manipulate a U.S. election, using social media and perhaps far more to tilt the electorate toward Trump. Russian agents also infiltrated state election systems. Securing election infrastructure against future attacks is vital to restoring faith in American democracy, and to ensuring that the nation’s political leadership is duly elected by the people.

Ethics

The bill’s ethics provisions are also expansive, covering every branch of government as well as lobbyists and foreign agents. It directs the Judicial Conference, the policy-making body for the federal judiciary, to create a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices, who currently abide, more or less, by their own implicit honor code.

It toughens ethics guidelines for presidential transitions, the executive branch and Congress, and strengthens the Office of Government Ethics, which oversees thousands of ethics officials throughout the executive branch.

The bill imposes additional restrictions on “revolving-door” relationships between government and private industry. It restricts compensation paid by private employers to employees entering government service, and limits how federal employees can work on matters related to their former employers. It requires recusal of presidential appointees from matters involving the president who appointed them, or entities in which that president has a “substantial interest.”

It encourages divestiture of assets, or the creation of a blind trust, by the president and vice president, and it would require presidential and vice-presidential nominees to disclose 10 years of tax returns to the public.

Within the Department of Justice it creates a dedicated unit for investigation and enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and imposes civil penalties on foreign agents who violate reporting requirements and laws. It also expands the scope of lobbying disclosure requirements.

The gray area of influence in Washington is perhaps the most difficult to police. Personal relationships matter in politics, but one of the most disturbing aspects of the Trump era has been the ease with which unscrupulous political players have exploited their power or their access to others who have it.

The abuses by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former cabinet officials Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, and by the president and his family, show that ethics in Washington are a function of character and norms more than law. The law can’t fully compensate for lapses in either. But the Trump administration is a constant reminder of the need to try.

The Momentum of Democracy

The infrastructure of American democracy needs renewal. Faith in the system is shaky. During the past several years, citizens have had frequent confirmation that something has gone dangerously awry.

HR 1 is so vast that only a portion of its provisions are listed here, but its breadth is not excessive. Its range speaks to the need for reforms across every branch of government, and to the failure of Congress and the executive over many years to plug the holes — some of them gaping — that let corruption and self-dealing distort the system.

The effort to strengthen the electoral system is especially important. If democracy is still the creed of this land — and one hopes it is — then elections must be secure from sabotage. Voters must be able to register and vote without obstruction. And the candidates and parties that get the most votes should exercise the power that the people have granted them. 

Despite brutal fits and starts, the machinery of democracy in the U.S. has always moved toward the enfranchisement of greater numbers of citizens. This impulse has never been proved wrong, and it has built a great democracy. It needs to guide the nation once more.

The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board on HR 1: "Repairing the Machinery of U.S. Democracy"

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.