House Democrats propose major campaign finance reforms in first bill of session

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House Democrats on Friday officially unveiled the For the People Act, a bill meant to, in part, reduce the influence of money on politics.

During Friday’s press conference, Democrats appeared to label wealthy political donors and “special interests” as an existential threat to American democracy and argued big money is a major reason why Americans are always so disappointed with Congress.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) cited the political influence of the National Rifle Association as to why generally-popular background checks on gun sales haven’t been passed, and the pharmaceutical industry and its “army of lobbyists” as to why bills to curb prescription drug costs were defeated.

“The overwhelming influence of money and special interests is a cancer in our democracy that needs to be removed,” Nadler said.

Along with mandating automatic voter registration, eliminating partisan gerrymandering and requiring Presidents to disclose tax returns, the bill puts a big focus on making campaign finance more transparent and less dominated by big money.

The Big Changes

The bill would require politically-active “dark money” 501(c)(4) nonprofits to disclose donors that contribute more than $10,000 and task the IRS with creating new rules for nonprofit political spending. It would prohibit the use of shell companies to funnel money to campaigns and super PACs and ban campaign contributions and independent expenditures from corporations with significant foreign ownership.

In an extraordinary passage, the bill declares that the Constitution should be amended to overturn both the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that helped unleash unprecedented amounts of outside spending and the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision that prohibited Congress from setting election spending limits. A separate, bipartisan constitutional amendment released Friday formally calls for a repeal of the two decisions.

The bill attempts to crack down on digital ad spending, which has so far been almost entirely unregulated, by creating a public database that discloses all political digital ad purchases totaling more than $500 and by preventing foreign individuals from purchasing digital political ads.

As part of the push to reduce the political influence of wealthy donors, the bill would provide a government-funded six-to-one match on contributions under $200 given to congressional and presidential candidates.

The bill proposes several changes to the FEC, including reducing its number of members from six to five to prevent partisan deadlock and attempts to define “coordination” between super PACs and candidates. Although such coordination is illegal, it is not enforced by the FEC and difficult to prove under its current definition.

The bill also requires inaugural committees to disclose their spending. President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee is reportedly under investigation for alleged improper spending.  

Among a series of ethics reforms, the bill prevents senior government officials from lobbying their former agencies for two years and bans members of Congress from serving on for-profit boards.

Democratic members speaking Friday credited new members for their push to reform campaign finance, as so many of them campaigned on the promise to reject corporate PACs.

Though the bill’s changes would likely provide new levels of transparency, it’s possible that ‘dark money’ groups and super PACs would come up with new ways to dodge donor disclosure.

For example, Politico noted that the new bill does not do anything to curb “pop-up PACs,” super PACs that avoid disclosing their donors until after election day by delaying their spending through mid-October.

There’s another problem for Democrats: the bill is unlikely to get a vote in the Senate from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and even less likely to avoid a veto from Trump.

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