Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took square aim at the sweeping anti-corruption and voting rights bill House Democrats are pushing as their first of the year.
McConnell wrote a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post on Thursday, characterizing the bill as a Democratic attempt to “grow the federal government’s power over Americans’ political speech and elections.”
“It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act,” he wrote.
The legislative package, known as HR 1, has three main ideas at its core: reforming campaign finance, strengthening the government’s ethics laws, and expanding voting rights. The aim is to get more information on how lobbyists and Super PACs are spending their money, make it easier to vote, and restructure the current campaign finance system to allow for public financing of elections.
The ideas behind the bill are extremely popular. A vast majority of Americans want to get the influence of money out of politics, and want Congress to pass laws to do so. Recent polling from the PAC End Citizens United found that 82 percent of all voters and 84 percent of independents said they support a bill of reforms to tackle corruption.
But McConnell painted a far different picture, characterizing HR 1 as a nefarious attempt to silence free speech and turn US democracy into one-party rule.
“House Democrats won’t come to the table and negotiate to reopen government, but they’ve been hard at work angling for more control over what you can say about them and how they get reelected,” he wrote. “They’re trying to clothe this power grab with cliches about ‘restoring democracy’ … but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party.”
Read another way: McConnell could be nervous. Americans of both parties have been clamoring to get money out of politics for years; Donald Trump ran on a message of “draining the swamp” in 2016, and House Democrats rode to a wave election in 2018 on an anti-corruption message.
“I’m not surprised that he would be attacking the bill and all of its various pieces because I think it presents a threat to the kind of system he’s built,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), who is spearheading the legislation. “The fact that McConnell would pen something like that validates that we’re doing the right thing.”
Here’s what HR 1 actually does
HR 1 has a lot in it, but here are some of the key points (for more, read the bill explainer):
- The bill would require Super PACs and “dark money” political organizations to make their donors public.
- It would set up a voluntary option to publicly finance campaigns, powered by small donations. The federal government would provide a voluntary 6-1 match for candidates for president and Congress, which means for every dollar a candidate raises from small donations, the federal government would match it six times over. The maximum small donation that could be matched would be capped at $200.
- The president and vice president and presidential/vice presidential candidates would be required to disclose 10 years of their tax returns.
- It would put in stricter lobbying registration requirements, with more oversight of foreign agents.
- It would set up nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end partisan gerrymandering, and create new national automatic voter registration asking voters to opt out, rather than opt in.
- It would make Election Day a holiday for federal employees and encourage private sector businesses to do the same.
McConnell’s main gripes with HR 1, outlined in his op-ed, are these:
- He objects to the bill’s aim of making the Federal Elections Commission be governed by five commissioners instead of six, saying that would make the commission partisan. Democrats say their intention of making it an odd number would be to reduce gridlock (a complaint that has surfaced from former FEC commissioners of both parties).
- McConnell writes that disclosing who is spending money in elections, and a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, would be a blow to free speech and free association. The 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United in effect was a ruling giving corporations the same powers as citizens when it came to political spending. “Under this bill, you’d keep your right to free association as long as your private associations were broadcast to everyone,” McConnell said.
- Not surprisingly, he is vigorously opposed to the idea of the federal government getting involved in public campaign financing reform. “They’d rather use your money to enrich campaign consultants,” he writes.
- He’s not a fan of proposed reforms to stop states from purging voters from the rolls. The bill would stop the use of non-forwardable mail being used as a way to remove voters from rolls. McConnell characterizes this as making it “harder for states to fix inaccurate data in their voter rolls.”
“From the First Amendment to your ballot box, Democrats want to rewrite the rules to favor themselves and their friends,” McConnell concluded. “Upending the FEC, squeezing taxpayers, attacking privacy and jeopardizing our elections are a price they’ll happily pay for this partisan power grab.”
The Senate leader had already said he had no plans to take up anything like the Democrats’ bill in the Senate. But this op-ed outlines the conservative thinking about the reforms Democrats are proposing.
“I think what jumped out at me was he thought he had to go through the whole menu,” Sarbanes said. “The fact he’s attacking the whole package and every piece of it shows he has absolutely no interest in any kind of reform … this is not the guy you would want waxing eloquent on the pages of any newspaper about how much he cares about democracy in America.”
Democrats took a big step by making HR 1 their first bill of the year; they are prioritizing this issue, and they want to pass it if they manage to win back the Senate or the White House in 2020.
But Democrats are also interpreting McConnell speaking out against HR 1 so publicly and forcefully as a sign that they are winning the public debate.
“I think he and others perceive that if we get this passed in the House and make this strong declaration to the public … that begins to create momentum and pressure on him,” Sarbanes said.