Partisan battle erupts over Democrats' bill to make Election Day a federal holiday and bolster ethics rules

WASHINGTON — At a Wednesday hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, a sharply partisan tone marked debate over the Democrats’ first new bill of the 116th Congress, a proposal that would make Election Day a federal holiday and institute new ethics rules.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., poignantly invoked the history of racist voting laws. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., loudly argued with the former White House ethics chief, Walter Shaub. There were references to “illegals” committing voter fraud, as well as to “gobs of cash” flowing from Saudi Arabia to the Trump International Hotel. If the rancor over the proposed legislation is any indication, it could be a long and not especially productive two years in Congress, where Democrats now control the House of Representatives and Republicans have even firmer control of the Senate than they did before the 2018 midterm elections.

Named HR 1 because of its legislative pole position, the For the People Act of 2019 was introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md. The bill would expand access to voting, in part by instituting automatic voter registration and making Election Day a federal holiday. It would also put stronger ethical constraints on the executive branch, in part by making it more difficult for people to move through the “revolving door” between public and private sector work, and by strengthening the Office of Government Ethics. The bill also contains a section on campaign finance disclosure.

Cummings, the committee’s new chair, called the bill “one of the boldest reform packages to be considered in the history of this body,” adding that it would “clean up in government, fight secret money in politics and make it easier for American citizens across this great country to vote.” Like other Democrats on the committee, Cummings portrayed the bill as an effort to broadly restore power to the American people by diminishing the influence of corporate interests — lobbying firms, government contractors, “dark money” political action groups — and to encourage participation in the democratic process.

It would have been difficult to craft a bill more likely to annoy Republicans. And Republicans were annoyed. In this, they were merely taking a cue from their upper-chamber counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who on the Senate floor called it “a package of urgent measures to rewrite the rules of American politics for the exclusive benefit of the Democratic Party,” as well as a “power grab.”

That language was echoed by many Republicans on the committee, for whom more muscular ethics rules are little more than a means to punish President Trump for being an unrepentant billionaire. And they view any expansion of voting rights as a way of increasing the rolls of the Democratic Party, since many communities disenfranchised today — minorities, immigrants, the working poor — tend to lean left politically.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

For his part, ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, blasted the bill as “For the People Who Want Democrats to Win Elections From Now On” and characterized it as rife with “tired” and “radical” proposals. This elicited laughter from the audience, which packed the hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building (an even more popular hearing, on climate change, was being held on the same hallway).

“You laugh, but it’s true,” Jordan said. Seated at the podium some feet away were three stars of the new House class: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. They offered their own commentary to Republicans’ statements, often with head shakes or small sounds of disapproval.

Republicans saved most of their ire for the voting-rights section of the bill. In order to make their case, the committee’s GOP members sometimes seemed to willfully misrepresent the facts. For example, Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., referenced “tens of thousands of illegal aliens voting” in Texas. He appeared to be repeating a false claim recently made by Trump. Voter fraud has been a longstanding concern of the president, though it is believed to be virtually nonexistent.

Republicans on the committee were also not exactly thrilled with the other portion of the bill, and scoffed when Shaub, the former ethics head, testified that “we now find ourselves in an ethics crisis.” Shaub first served in that role under President Barack Obama and stayed on under Trump for several months months before finally growing exasperated with what he saw as the president’s lack of commitment to the rule of law. Upon his departure, he said that the United States was on the cusp of becoming a “laughingstock.”

Shaub subsequently joined CNN, where he was an outspoken Trump critic (he also enthusiastically assails the current administration on Twitter). Republicans were thus not bound to take seriously his recommendations, including his call to bolster the investigative reach of the Office of Government Ethics and to allow the agency’s head greater power in ethics-related decision. Meadows, leader of the Freedom Caucus, noted that during the Obama administration, Shaub had averred that the office did not need expanded powers.

“How do you have this evolution in such a short period of time?” Meadows asked, growing animated and doing little to hold back the sarcasm in his voice.

“Frankly, I was naive,” Shaub said during the tense back-and-forth.

But no moment could rival Cummings’s evocation of the legacy of disenfranchising African-American voters. His voice rose as he read from and summarized a 2016 federal appeals court ruling that struck down a North Carolina voter identification law, which it said targeted African-Americans with “surgical precision.”

Cummings said that a year ago, as his mother was dying, her last words were: “Do not let them take our votes away from us.”

It was powerful oratory, but it is not likely to boost the bill’s seemingly dim legislative prospects. Cummings and his Democratic colleagues may well pass HR 1, but the bill will meet with staunch opposition from McConnell and Senate Republicans, who appear to be uniformly opposed to the measure. In addition to his comments on the Senate floor, McConnell recently offered his thoughts on For the People Act in a Washington Post op-ed, where he said of the bill, “this outlandish Democrat proposal is not a promising start.”

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