Not long after their party regained control of the lower chamber in the midterm elections, House Democratic leaders unveiled their signature legislative action for the next Congress – a package of reform measures aimed at tackling some of the worst ethics abuses involving the Trump administration's top officials and members of Congress. Symbolically assigned the designation of H.R. 1 to underscore its status as the top legislative priority, the bill would do more than just restore the integrity of our key democratic institutions; it could also serve as a crucial first step toward strengthening our system of regulatory safeguards.
Though the actual language of H.R. 1 has not been released, the bill is expected to consist of three sections. First, it would introduce a number of ethics reforms aimed at high-ranking executive branch officials and members of Congress, including requiring presidential candidates to disclose their taxes and banning lawmakers from serving on for-profit corporate boards. Second, it would bring much-needed changes to campaign finance to limit the influence of corporate money. The most notable provision would seek to amplify the impact of small donations to candidates by using public funds to match them six to one. Third, the bill would seek to increase public access to the voting booth by, among other things, limiting abusive state voter ID requirements and establishing automatic registration for most of the voting-age public.
Taken together, these provisions could fundamentally recalibrate the politics of policymaking, both by empowering ordinary Americans and stripping away some of the undue influence that economic and corporate elites now enjoy. In doing so, the bill could help reverse the pattern of dysfunction in the policymaking branches that has long served to undermine the effective functioning of our regulatory system.
To begin with, a Congress more attuned to the public (as opposed to wealthy elites) is less likely to undertake targeted attacks against regulatory safeguards on behalf of the corporate interests that bankroll their campaigns. As CPR Member Scholars and staff have documented over the years, members of Congress have increasingly used such tactics as "anti-regulatory riders" on must-pass appropriations bills and resolutions of disapproval authorized by the Congressional Review Act to block safeguards opposed by powerful corporations. In many cases, campaign finance data reveal that the lead congressional sponsors of these measures have strong financial ties to the very industries that would have been on the hook for significant compliance costs if the regulations requiring them to clean up their pollution or protect their employees from workplace hazards were implemented as planned.
Beyond reducing the influence of money, H.R. 1 could also help alleviate the pervasive hyper-partisanship in Congress that serves to catalyze such attacks on our public protections. For lawmakers looking to score easy political points – particularly, but not exclusively, those in the Republican caucus – these tactics have provided a powerful and all-too convenient weapon of choice for doing so. H.R. 1 could help defuse this dynamic since a more empowered public is unlikely to reward such partisan gamesmanship in the voting booth.
Instead of using their considerable powers and energies to accomplish such destructive ends, lawmakers might enjoy the greater freedom that H.R. 1 provides them to pursue more constructive legislative activities aimed at addressing new and emerging threats to the public. Over the past 10 or so ...