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Senate Democrats join the push for sweeping anti-corruption legislation

House Democrats’ sweeping anti-corruption bill HR 1 is getting a Senate companion.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) speaks at a forum about campaign finance reform in 2016.
Paul Morigi/WireImage

House Democrats’ first bill of the year — a sweeping anti-corruption and pro-Democracy reform bill known as HR 1 — is getting a companion bill in the Senate.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) is planning to introduce a companion bill in the Senate early next year, he told senators on Tuesday in a Dear Colleague letter obtained by Vox. The bill text would likely be an update of an existing bill Udall introduced in 2017, tweaked to mirror the House legislation.

HR 1 is the first bill House Democrats will tackle once they retake the gavel next year; it’s aimed at stamping out the influence of money in politics, curtailing Washington lobbying, and expanding voting rights.

Democrats are hoping to get some Republicans on board as well, but the reality is that Republican leadership in the Senate likely won’t let Udall’s bill make it to the floor. Still, it’s a sign that Democrats in the House and the Senate are serious about proposing a wide swath of reforms that could dramatically change American campaign finance laws, expand voting rights, and institute new rules that crack down on lobbying.

“Having strong, complementary democracy reform proposals in both the House and Senate, as a unified approach in Congress, will be an important step forward in repairing our broken political system and our destructive campaign finance system,” Udall told his fellow senators in the Dear Colleague letter.

The very existence of a companion Senate bill means Democrats are getting ready to enact reforms if they win back the Senate and the White House in 2021.

“American democracy has reached a crisis point,” Udall told Vox in a statement. “There is no more important issue to address in the opening days of the new Congress than restoring faith in democracy.”

What’s in the Senate bill

We don’t know exactly what will be in the final Senate companion bill yet, because we still don’t know exactly what will be in the final version of House Democrats’ HR 1 yet. The details of that bill are still being hashed out, and it needs to go through committee and markup in early January.

Udall is waiting for the House to produce a bill before he rolls out his own version, but there is already a blueprint for what will be in his Senate bill — his “We the People” Democracy Reform Act of 2017.

In broad strokes, the bill is very similar to the current HR 1. Just like the House bill, it’s a broad piece of legislation that focuses on three main areas: campaign finance reform, expanding voting rights, and cracking down on lobbying.

Here are some of the provisions in Udall’s 2017 bill:

  • A new public campaign finance system powered by small donors modeled on New York City’s small donor program that would reward candidates who agree to take small donations and forgo corporate PAC money.
  • Closing disclosure loopholes, forcing outside groups to report any campaign spending that’s $10,000 or more to the Federal Election Commission.
  • Significantly cracking down on corporations with ties to foreign government spending in US elections.
  • Ending partisan gerrymandering by mandating that states establish independent redistricting commissions powered by citizens, rather than state lawmakers.
  • Creating automatic voter registration, online voter registration, and same-day voter registration for eligible voters.
  • Replacing the FEC with a new enforcement agency to investigate violations of campaign finance law.
  • Requiring the president and vice president to disclose their tax returns and divest any assets that could present a conflict of interest. The president and vice president’s spouses and minor children would also be required to divest assets that could be a conflict of interest.
  • Making White House visitor logs public.
  • Cracking down on former members of Congress who don’t register as lobbyists but continue to work in Washington’s influence industry.

There are things in here that are different from HR 1, but some provisions — including the creation of a public campaign finance system, disclosure of tax returns, and incentivizing states to end partisan redistricting — are the same.

Democrats are playing the long game with this legislation

Democrats know these bills aren’t going to be signed into law in the next Congress; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will still be in control and President Donald Trump will still be sitting in the Oval Office.

But Democrats are also making a big political statement — they know voters are fed up with money in politics and dysfunction in Washington, and they want to demonstrate they are serious about doing something to address it.

By making anti-corruption their No. 1 priority, House Democrats are throwing down the gauntlet for Republicans. A vast majority of Americans want to get the influence of money out of politics, and want Congress to pass laws to do so, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey. Given Trump’s myriad scandals, it looks bad for Republicans to be the party opposing campaign finance reform — especially going into 2020.

“Our best friend in this debate is the public,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters during a recent press conference. Pelosi, who is poised to become the next House speaker, talked about the new energy buoying the anti-corruption bill coming from freshmen members who had championed the issue in 2018 — helping propel Democrats to a landslide win in the House.

“We believe it will have great support,” Pelosi added.

Udall and Senate Democrats have been quietly working on these ideas for a long time. On his bill, Udall is already working with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Ben Cardin (MD), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Tammy Baldwin (WI), Dick Durbin (IL) and others, and is looking for more partners. He has also been working with Rep. John Sarbanes (MD), the Democrat spearheading HR 1 in the House, since May.

They and advocacy groups are hoping that the chance to pass these reforms is just a few years away.

“If we get a more responsive Senate and president elected in 2020, I think the stage will be set to enact these reforms in 2021,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan pro-democracy nonprofit. “If that doesn’t happen, we will keep pressing and set the stage for enacting them in 2023.”