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HR 1 'Respects The Voters, Gives Them Their Voices Back,' Rep. Sarbanes Says

Voters cast their ballots in the Illinois primary in Hinsdale, Ill, March 18, 2014. (M. Spencer Green, File/AP)
Voters cast their ballots in the Illinois primary in Hinsdale, Ill, March 18, 2014. (M. Spencer Green, File/AP)

The first big-ticket legislation from House Democrats heads to the floor this week. Its champion? Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes.

House Resolution 1. The so-called "For the People Act." It includes proposals such as public financing of campaigns, ending Citizens United, requiring presidential candidates to disclose tax returns, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a federal holiday and ending partisan gerrymandering.

According to Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, however, "a more accurate title would be 'For the People Who Want Democrats to Win Elections From Now On.' "

"The bill includes a laundry list of tired proposals designed to benefit the majority by tilting the playing field in their favor. It’s not a stretch to label many of these proposals radical," Jordan continued.

H.R. 1, and the Democrats' big push against corruption. Rep. Sarbanes and David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, discussed.

Interview Highlights

On what issues the bill addresses

Sarbanes: "What we're trying to accomplish is responding to the appetite we've seen out in the electorate and among the public for real change in Washington. People really want us to clean up politics. They want to fight corruption. They want to unrig this system. This is the message that's been coming through loud and clear over the last few years, but particularly coming off the 2018 election, the public, the voters out there were really sending a powerful message that they want to see things change here. They want to be respected again. They want to feel like their voice matters. And so we've put together a very comprehensive package of democracy reforms that, if you distill it down to what it really is saying on behalf of the voters, is, 'Let's make it possible for us to register and vote in America without that being difficult.'

"We don't want to have to run an obstacle course to get to the ballot box so let's strengthen registration and voting opportunities all across the country. The second thing is when lawmakers come to Washington, it's reasonable for the public to expect them to behave themselves, so we want to make sure there's good ethics and transparency and accountability in the way things operate in Washington. And, lastly, people don't want their representatives getting tangled up in the money, and big money has way too much influence in Washington. Secret money pours into our politics in ways that really diminishes the voices of everyday citizens. So we push back against that influence of big money in HR 1. You put all that together and this is a very comprehensive set of reforms that respects the voters, respects the public, gives them their voices back. And that's responding to a promise we made to the voters in 2018 that this would be the first order of business."

"This is a power grab on behalf of the people. Everything in here comes from everyday citizens, the priorities that they've put forward."

Rep. John Sarbanes

On pushback from Republicans

Sarbanes: "Frankly, to have Mitch McConnell standing up against this bill, it seems to me as a badge of honor for HR 1, because he's been — for decades — he's been really trying to hide democracy behind a curtain, opened up the democracy to the influence of special interests and big money and so forth. I'm not surprised that he's leaning in against this. I think he's wrong. It's a miscalculation on his part to suggest that this is a Democratic power grab, which is how he's painted it. This is a power grab on behalf of the people. Everything in here comes from everyday citizens, the priorities that they've put forward. Why is it a Democratic power grab, for example, to just make it more possible for people to register and vote in America? That benefits everybody: Republicans, Democrats and independents. Why is it a Democratic power grab to insist on ethics and accountability in Washington that respects every voter and every citizen across the political spectrum? And I can tell you that it doesn't matter what party people belong to. When they look at Washington and feel that big money and special interests have too much influence, they want that to change. They want power to come back to them, the people, so this is the people standing up, and HR 1 is the vehicle that we've crafted listening carefully to our constituents and to folks all across the country to make sure that they get their voice back."

On how HR 1 addresses partisan gerrymandering

Sarbanes: "HR 1 would require every state in the country to set up a process for redistricting that would have an independent redistricting commission — a nonpartisan commission — that would decide how the lines are drawn for congressional districts. This is modeled after what's happened in a number of states across the country. California, for example, has an independent redistricting commission. It's something that the voters have been drawn to. There's a lot of frustration out there when you talk to people about how redistricting is done. Political gerrymandering is shorthand expression of that frustration. People feel like politicians pick their voters instead of voters picking their politicians when it comes to how these lines are drawn. So I think it's a fair grievance on the part of the public, and HR 1 acknowledges that under the time, place, manner or authority that we have under the Constitution in terms of of how to guide elections and how things are done in the states, we can set that standard. We can require every state to put this kind of a commission in place. And then the state pulls it together, meets the criteria that are set forth for that independent, nonpartisan approach."

On how HR 1 addresses campaign finance overhauls

Sarbanes: "One of the things we've been hearing from the public out there is that they really feel like the current campaign finance system is built in a way that gives special interests and big money folks a lot of influence because they're the ones that are contributing to campaigns. You look at PAC donations to campaigns, high-end donors and so forth, and the fact of the matter is that if a lot of money comes in for campaigns from special interests and insiders and big-money folks, then the institution of Congress is going to lean in their direction. That's just human nature. Can you build a new system for funding campaigns that gives the people power, that sort of gives them ownership again of the democracy and lets them call the shots?

"What we've proposed for members of Congress — and this is a completely voluntary system, nobody has to participate in this, it's a choice that a candidate can make — but we've created a system where candidates could collect small donations they could earn a six-to-one match on those donations if they agree to give up PAC money and do certain other things to show they're respecting the public and not leaning toward the special interests. But if they do that then that small donation that comes in from an everyday American gets amplified and that American then has power. They can step onto the field of their own democracy as a power player and they can get the attention of candidates. And then what will happen is candidates will start spending their time with real people instead of spending their time hanging out with lobbyists on K Street or hanging out with the big donors and the PACs and so forth."

"I think the two leading groups that work on free speech in the country are our group and the ACLU, and the ACLU put out a 13-page letter going point by point on the ways this bill would limit the speech of groups trying to change government policies."

David Keating

On the question of free speech in 

Keating: "Free speech for all — that's the goal of the First Amendment to our Constitution. That's part of what makes America the best country in the world and free speech was vital for the civil rights movement. It was vital for LGBTQ rights, tax reform, much more. But this bill, the way it's structured, before a nonprofit group speaks out on government, they're going to have to spend thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer to find out if it's OK to speak, and in many cases they're going to have to fill out reams of paperwork for the Federal Election Commission. They're going to have to declare in a government form what candidate they back with their speech, even though they're not backing a candidate at all.

"And then there are all kinds of new disclaimer rules in the bill including disclaimers that are going to be 18 seconds long for a podcast or radio ad. So this is not really how we should be doing things in America. It's not for the people to subsidize the speech of politicians and to limit the speech of the citizens. And that's what HR 1 would do. And it's not just us that says this. I think the two leading groups that work on free speech in the country are our group and the ACLU, and the ACLU put out a 13-page letter going point by point on the ways this bill would limit the speech of groups trying to change government policies."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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