Democrats Have Promised to Clean Up Washington. Can They Deliver?

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak to the media in Washington. 

A key question for House Democrats who plan to vote on a sweeping package of democracy reforms as their first order of business is whether they will be content to stop at scoring political points, or will press on to genuinely fix what’s broken in public life.

Inevitably, the House’s pending vote on the reform package known as H.R. 1 will be at least in part symbolic, given the likelihood that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will refuse to bring it up for a vote. McConnell’s foreseeable opposition will put the GOP on record as the Party of No—no small-donor matching funds, no disclosure, no fixes to voting rights, ethics or gerrymandering—a stance that places Republicans at odds with most Americans, and that hands Democrats a politically potent talking point. 

But Democrats could face their own political backlash if they cast themselves as change agents without actually following through. Democrats say the ethics, campaign-finance, and gerrymandering reforms at the heart of H.R. 1 will clean up Washington and revive voters’ faith in democracy. (Legislation to restore voter protections to the Voting Rights Act will proceed on a separate track.) Yet the clash between Democrats’ ideals and their actual political practices could threaten to drown out their reform message, especially as the 2020 presidential campaign swings into high gear.

It’s bad enough that a Russia-style disinformation campaign helped elect Senate Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama, that New Jersey Democrats are pursuing GOP-style partisan gerrymandering, and that Democrat-friendly super PACs have been exploiting disclosure loopholes to hide their donors. It will be even harder for Democrats to take the high road once big donors on the left start leveraging secretive nonprofits—many of which already power the anti-Trump resistance—and super PACs to support the party’s sprawling field of presidential hopefuls.

There’s no equivalence, of course, between Democrats’ awkward slip-ups and the GOP’s top-to-bottom assault on democracy and ethics norms, from President Trump’s own business and campaign-finance quagmires to Republicans’ state-level power grabs and voter suppression tactics. But even some Democrats admit that their party’s anti-corruption message will fall flat if its leading candidates cozy up to billionaire corporate, fossil fuels, and super PAC donors. And internal divisions could also threaten the Democratic reform agenda.

The way out for Democrats is twofold. One, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should continue to strategically expand the House’s reform platform to include democracy fixes that have broad bipartisan appeal. Two, Democrats should impose some limits on themselves, without waiting for rules changes, as did the many winning House Democrats who swore off corporate PAC contributions in the recent midterm.

It’s a tricky balancing act. Many Republicans in the House, including GOP members of the bipartisan Congressional Reformers Caucus, embrace Pelosi’s plan to advance procedural changes aimed at making the House work better. These include plans to make the text of bills available to members at least 72 hours ahead of time, tighten up the House ethics rules, ease logjams in the budget process, and create a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

But some House progressives objected to the inclusion of a “pay-as-you-go” budget provision that would require the House to offset any spending increases on mandatory programs, such as Medicare. It’s also unclear how well some of Pelosi’s other procedural reforms, including her pledge to open up the legislative process by allowing more votes on amendments, will fare in the hyper-partisan House.

Nevertheless, Pelosi is wise to extend an olive branch to the GOP. Democrats, for one, can achieve procedural and good governance reforms via House rules changes without waiting around for McConnell. The House might also force the Senate’s hand on election security, for example, which enjoys support on both sides of the aisle. The Senate version of the bipartisan Secure Elections Act won a half-dozen influential GOP cosponsors in the 115th Congress, who regarded it as a matter of national security.

Pelosi will be grateful for some GOP democracy allies if, as some predict, impeachment becomes increasingly inevitable. Democrats may not be able to credibly hold the Trump administration accountable without at least some Republican partners, lest they suffer the same kind of political backlash that hit the GOP after the Republican House moved to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Whatever Republicans do, Democrats have a golden opportunity to win over voters who now list corruption in government and special interest influence as top concerns. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, made rejecting big money and super PACs a central theme of her presidential kickoff. Democrats could find it tough to champion democracy reforms amid a high-stakes White House race and a bitterly divided government. But Democrats retook the House in part because they pledged to clean up Washington. Now the question is whether they can deliver.

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