House Democrats Urge Sweeping Reforms to Boost Voting, Ethics - NBC10 Boston
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House Democrats Urge Sweeping Reforms to Boost Voting, Ethics

While some elements of the bill have bipartisan support, the overall package is unlikely to win approval in the Republican-controlled Senate

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    House Democrats on Friday unveiled a comprehensive elections and ethics reform package that targets what they call a "culture of corruption in Washington" and aims to reduce the role of money in politics.

    The bill, among the first to be considered as Democrats take control of the House after eight years, would make it easier for citizens to register and vote, tighten election security and require presidents to disclose their tax returns.

    Dubbed the "For the People Act," the legislation marks an effort by Democrats to set a tone of good government as they take the majority following historic gains in the midterm elections.

    Democrats used the full force of their new majority as they announced the plan Friday at a packed news conference that included dozens of new and returning lawmakers. While the bill includes a range of reforms, some Democrats made clear that one of their chief targets is President Donald Trump.

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    Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Trump had "set the tone from the top in his administration that behaving ethically and complying with the law is optional. Ladies and gentlemen, we are better than that."

    In a nod to Trump's resistance to releasing his tax returns, the bill would require presidents to release at least 10 years' worth of returns. The bill also would ban executive-branch officials from lobbying their old agency for two years after they leave government and reauthorize and enhance the Office of Government Ethics, which has clashed with Trump.

    Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is leading the reform effort, said Democrats were "responding directly to the American people and what they want to see in our democracy," as shown by the election results.

    Calling the bill "transformative," Sarbanes said it will "strengthen our democracy and return political power to the people by making it easier, not harder, to vote, ending the dominance of big money in our politics and ensuring that public officials actually serve the public."

    While some elements of the bill have bipartisan support, the overall package faces opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate and from Trump.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has pronounced the reform measure dead on arrival in the Senate, a claim Sarbanes embraced as a badge of honor.

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    "You could stamp on this thing 'McConnell-rejected,' and it would immediately give it more credibility," Sarbanes said. The legislation was not built for McConnell or any lawmaker, Sarbanes added: "This was built for the public."

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also touted the bill, saying it would "restore integrity to government, so that people can have confidence that government works for the public interest, not the special interests."

    The bill would create automatic national voter registration while expanding access to early and online registration. It also would increase federal support for state voter systems, including paper ballots to prevent fraud, and restore voting rights for ex-prisoners.

    The measure also would restore protections included in the 1965 Voting Rights Act and guard against efforts by state officials to purge voting rolls.

    Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement, called voting "the most powerful, non-violent instrument of transformation we have in our democracy," and said efforts to make it easier to vote — not harder — were crucial.

    "I truly believe deep in my heart that the way votes were not counted and purged in Georgia and Florida and other states changed the outcome of the last election" to harm Democrats, Lewis said. "That must never happen again."

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    Besides election provisions, the bill would set up a public financing system for House races and require political groups to disclose donors. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter would be required to disclose who paid for online ads, similar to existing rules for television and other media.

    In a move designed to reduce partisan gerrymandering, the bill calls for states to establish independent redistricting commissions to draw boundaries for future congressional districts.

    A section of the bill also voices support for statehood for Washington, D.C., where 700,000 citizens, mostly registered as Democrats, have no voting members in either chamber of Congress.

    "District of Columbia residents deserve full congressional voting rights and self-government, which only statehood can provide," a section of the bill would read, according to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Norton said in a statement that Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings committed to holding a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on a separate bill, H.R. 51, that would grant statehood.

    On ethics, members of Congress would be barred from serving on corporate boards and could not use taxpayer dollars to settle employment discrimination cases.

    Sarbanes and other supporters said the election security measures are particularly important as the 2020 election nears.

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    He delivered a rebuttal to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's comments that "no one currently alive was responsible for that," which Coates called a "strange theory of governance." 

    "Well into this century the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of civil war soldiers," he said. "We honor treaties that date back some 200 years despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens and this bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach."

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    Predicting "historic turnout," Sarbanes said officials must not only encourage increased participation, but guard against attempts at sabotage from foreign and domestic adversaries.

    "If we're not ready for that in all the ways (the legislation) seeks to ensure, then we could end up with a train wreck," he said.