Clinton, Senate Democrats Plan Broad Democracy Reforms

Clinton, Senate Democrats Plan Broad Democracy Reforms

(Photo: AP/Dennis Van Tine)

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s campaign is reportedly planning to roll out a sweeping platform of democracy reforms that builds on the campaign-finance overhaul she unveiled in September, say progressive advocates.

Democracy advocates have been urging Clinton to more forcefully articulate her reform agenda on the campaign trail. Throughout the primary, Clinton has faced consistent criticism from Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders for her Wall Street ties. Clinton’s plans to broaden her reform agenda coincide with discussion among Senate Democrats of a democracy package that would encompass both campaign-finance and voting-rights changes.

Amid polls showing unprecedented voter anger at the influence of political money, advocates say Democrats now see reform as a shrewd electoral strategy. “I think [leading Democratic Senator] Schumer and Hillary are both looking at 2006 and seeing [2016] as a potential repeat,” says Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for reform advocacy group Public Citizen, referring to the election year when Democrats ran on ethics and lobbying reform. 

“I suspect this is going to become a very key issue affecting vote choice,” Holman adds. “I believe this is going to be a very wise strategic decision.”

The details of plans under discussion by the Clinton camp and Senate Democrats are not yet clear. And while they will be distinct from each other, both are likely to include increased campaign disclosure, an overhaul of the Federal Election Commission, stronger revolving door rules, and voting-rights protections.

“Her previous stance has been bits and pieces,” says Holman. “Here, she’s going to put it all together to clarify what her campaign is all about.”

Holman is among the progressive advocates who have recently been in discussions with the Clinton campaign about her reform agenda’s policy details. Holman predicts that Clinton could unveil a comprehensive platform within a couple weeks.

The campaign has indicated it will make a pivot some time before the Democratic National Convention at the end of July, concurs Scott Blaine Swenson, head of communications for Common Cause. Process of elimination, Swenson says, suggests that it will be soon.

“We’re hopeful and continue to believe that the Clinton campaign is going to make that pivot [toward promoting solutions],” Swenson says.

A Clinton spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are working on a broad package of reform bills as part of their plan to win back control of the chamber. The idea is for the Democratic ticket to present a unified front on the issue in a bid to tap into voter anger over the influence of big money. Democrats have set out to contrast themselves with Republicans, who have pushed aggressively for both political money deregulation and voter-ID laws that critics say obstruct voter access.

The Clinton campaign may try to line up its platform release to coincide with the Senate Democrats’ plan, Holman says. Advocates of campaign-finance changes say it won’t be a moment too soon.

“Clinton shouldn't wait to talk about her democracy reform plan, and we'd encourage her to start campaigning on it today,” says Adam Smith, communications director for campaign-finance reform group Every Voice.

Clinton’s initial reform platform included a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, legislation to create a small-donor matching campaign-finance system, and executive orders that would help shine a light on dark money. Campaign-finance reform advocates have expressed disappointment that she has thus far declined to make the policies a central part of her campaign message.

As Clinton closes in on capturing the Democratic nomination, some argue she could extend an olive branch to Bernie Sanders’s supporters by promoting a campaign-finance, ethics, and voting-rights reform message.

A Clinton reform platform could also arguably be an effective foil to Donald Trump, who lambasts the influence of big donors and lobbyists but has failed to prescribe any policy fixes apart from being a self-funding billionaire.

While neither Senate Democrats’ nor the Clinton camp’s plans have been finalized, both are expected to include elements of legislation Democrats have introduced in past years.

These include a New Mexico Senator Tom Udall’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and a bill that would significantly revamp the Federal Election Commission, which has fallen victim to political gridlock. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, told National Journal that she expects the package to include a measure she introduced last year that would help slow the revolving door between the federal government and Wall Street. Clinton came out in support of Baldwin’s bill in August 2015. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s DISCLOSE Act, which would increase disclosure of donors to dark-money groups, is also reportedly in the mix. Legislation that would restore voting rights is likely to be a part of both platforms, too.

The big question is whether Clinton—who has drawn fire for her reliance on big donors and her tendency to push the boundaries of election law—would actually follow through with a sweeping reform agenda once elected. President Barack Obama, for one, promised to change how business is done in Washington but will leave office without much of a reform legacy.

“That’s an image problem that she’s going to have to overcome” admits Holman. “She has not yet succeeded at overcoming that. I believe that platform is designed to overcome that disconnect. It is in my opinion that she’s quite likely going to succeed.”