Democrats’ money-in-politics reform package draws praise — and strong objections

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi performs a ceremonial swearing-in for US House Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY), incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman. (Alex Edelman / AFP)

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee held its hearing on the For the People Act (HR 1), which promises 
numerous election reforms from voting rights to campaign finance. Six expert witnesses appeared before the committee testifying both in favor and against aspects of the proposed legislation.  

One of the witnesses, Adav Noti, senior director of trial litigation and chief of staff for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center supported the efforts of the legislation which includes sections which add more “dark money” disclosure — the DISCLOSE Act — and introduce controls on digital spending — the Honest Ads Actamong other things.

“Limitless spending is a threat,” Noti said in his testimony. He argued that corporate spending is “drowning out” the voices of regular people in elections, something Noti believed the majority opinion in Citizens United may not have realized.

Noti also warned about “more and more” coordination between outside spending groups and candidates’ campaigns, specifically citing the case of the NRA coordinating with the Trump campaign in 2016. The For the People Act includes the Stop Super PAC-Candidate Coordination Act which defines coordinated spending and imposes penalties for those who violate those definitions.

The bill also would create small-donor powered public financing of campaigns. Hans von Spakovsky, manager of election law reform initiative and senior legal fellow for the right-wing Heritage Foundation, vigorously testified against the proposed steps toward public financing. He said the current optional system is fine, but the suggested changes would be “unconstitutional.” He asserted it “violates the basic associational rights” of American citizens.

J. Christian Adams, president and general counsel of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, another right-leaning think tank, agreed with von Spakovsky and suggested the whole idea of passing these reforms in an omnibus bill “pushes the outer limits of the Constitution.”

Another aspect that the hearing touched upon was “shadow lobbying,” which allows people to perform advocacy or consulting while working for lobbying firms, but not register as lobbyists. Noti expressed his support of the bill’s expansion of definitions for lobbying activities to cover what he considers a major loophole.  

The proposed changes to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) addressed by the bill received differing opinions from experts. One proposed change is the addition of civil money penalties to those who fail to file a timely FARA registration. Von Spakovsky disagreed with the specific proposal. While he said FARA is “a good law,” he considers imposing a civil fine a step too far and suggested legislators should take into account “due process considerations.”   

Noti supported the proposed stricter FARA regulations, in particular, greater funding of the department in the Justice Department responsible for investigating violations. He also suggested Congress close the loophole which allows lobbyists registered under the Lobbyist Disclosure Act not to register under FARA.

Another contentious topic was the bill’s addition of the creation of a code of conduct for all federal judges, including the Supreme Court. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) mentioned the example of deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s who stayed at the ranch of the wealthy John Poindexter free of charge. One witness, Sarah Turberville, director of The Constitution Project for the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, testified that examples like Scalia’s delegitimizes the judicial branch and the addition a code of conduct would be a good thing. Von Spakovsky countered he believed the legislative branch is constitutionally unable to create a code.

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