Last week, the Blue Wave finally arrived at shore, ushering in the 116th Congress and the beginning of divided government. Amid progressive excitement about the most diverse Congress in American history and national frustration about a nonsensical shutdown, there has been little spotlight on House members fulfilling their constitutionally prescribed responsibilities and introducing legislation. On the first day of the session, Congressman John P. Sarbanes (D-MD) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi put forward H.R. 1, a set of bold yet sensible measures that collectively tackle some of the most critical threats to American democracy. This 571-page package of reform proposals may not be as captivating as President Trump’s latest tweets, but it is certainly far worthier of our attention.
The “For the People Act,” as the inaugural bill in the 116th Congress is titled, reduces barriers to democratic participation, cracks down on voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering, toughens ethics rules for candidates and elected officials, and addresses the “revolving door” between congressional offices and lobbying firms. Aimed at increasing voter turnout, the bill declares Election Day to be a federal holiday and scales up other voter accessibility initiatives — including automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and a 15-day early voting period — that a handful of states have already enacted. To encourage student voting, the “For the People Act” designates colleges and universities as voter registration agencies eligible for resources under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and eliminates the need for a stamp on absentee ballots. It also bans post-release felon disenfranchisement, although it allows for the 48 states that disenfranchise people during the time of their incarceration to continue doing so. The “For the People Act” would curb partisan gerrymandering by handing over the congressional redistricting process to an independent, nonpartisan commission within each state. Encompassing a series of proposals that Representative Sarbanes had advocated in earlier sessions of Congress, the bill introduces a voluntary public campaign financing scheme for House elections that would limit big money in politics, making political donations a more meaningful avenue of democratic participation for the majority of Americans.
Amid the hundreds of other innovations and reform proposals contained within the “For the People Act,” a few were clearly crafted with President Trump in mind. The bill requires that every presidential candidate disclose 10 years’ worth of tax returns; demands that presidential appointees recuse themselves on matters related to the President, his or her spouse, or any of their interests; and establishes robust ethics regulations for presidential transition teams. With a base hell-bent on taking down Trump and party leadership cautious about impeachment, this bill is a smart first move that targets Trump’s controversies without ever mentioning his name. H.R. 1 signals that the Democratic majority will not merely define itself in opposition to Trump but will take up the wonky yet pivotal trifecta of voting rights, ethics and campaign finance reform.
Under ordinary political circumstances, many contents of the bill would garner bipartisan support. However, the bill’s anti-Trump undertones — and Nancy Pelosi’s name on the title page — will make it toxic to most Republicans. To little surprise, Senator Mitch McConnell has already promised that the bill will not even get a vote in the upper chamber. Perhaps H.R. 1’s minimal chances of passage would discount its significance in the eyes of the public, but for now, simply making the bill visible to the American people is a worthwhile goal in itself.
American news media is seemingly allergic to meaningful policy discussions. That allergy, as proven in 2016, is life-threatening to our democracy. So far, the media’s attention to inconsequential controversy — and complete ignorance of H.R. 1 — does not bode well for 2020. When first-year Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib used an expletive in her call for impeachment at a gathering of supporters, media outlets of all political leanings eagerly assembled panels to analyze the situation. The “For the People Act” received no such airtime. This imbalance of coverage furthers the frustrating narrative that Democrats are single-mindedly focused on impeachment, lack a productive agenda of their own and have greater interest in taking down the President than cooperating on anything. Bombarded with this irresponsible narrative and blinded to the substantive debates in Washington, the American populace sees politics and policy through a funhouse mirror, and our democratic decision-making suffers.
Although the “For the People Act” will not become law under divided government, it could still become a massive political victory for the Democrats. If Democrats unanimously vote to pass H.R. 1 and send it to die in the Republican-controlled Senate, the Republicans’ indifference toward much-needed reforms may prove a powerful 2020 talking point. Of course, this is only possible if the average American knows about the “For the People Act” and why it matters — and unfortunately, 571 pages of reform proposals are unlikely to start trending overnight.
As a citizen, you can work to advance the bill in Congress by encouraging your representative, regardless of party, to cosponsor it. Perhaps even more importantly, you can help to make the “For the People Act” a household name. Whenever a friend or family member asks you about a congresswoman’s latest controversy or Trump’s latest tweet, end your conversation with a brief description of the “For the People Act.” As the shutdown drags on and the unseasonable 2020 presidential campaign cycle begins, don’t let the American people overlook the proposals for positive change already on the table. Make it known that the majority’s agenda in Congress is, above all else, democracy itself.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.