House Republicans Warn That Bill Combating Big Money in Politics “Resembles Russian Government Policy”

Several Republican committee members described H.R. 1 — an attempt to reform the way we finance elections and oversee the executive branch — as “chilling.”

RIDGELAND, MS - NOVEMBER 27: A voter casts her ballot at a polling place at Highland Colony Baptist Church, November 27, 2018 in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Voters in Mississippi head to the polls for today's special runoff election, where  Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Mike Espy is running in a close race with appointed Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS). (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A voter casts her ballot at a polling place at Highland Colony Baptist Church, in Ridgeland, Miss., on Nov. 27, 2018. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform denounced a major new initiative by Democrats to clean up elections and expand voter participation as a power grab that will corrupt the political process and infringe on the rights of free speech and association.

In nearly apocalyptic terms on Wednesday, Republican committee members took turns laying out the dire consequences of H.R. 1, decrying the consequences of a federal holiday on Election Day, matching public funds for congressional candidates, increasing transparency in campaign finance, and making it easier to register to vote. More stringent disclosure requirements for political spending would encourage partisan monitoring and even doxxing, Republicans argued, citing the Obama-era scandal where the Internal Revenue Service was accused by conservatives of targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

During the Wednesday hearing, several minority members described the bill — an attempt to implement sweeping reforms to the way we finance elections and oversee the executive branch — as “chilling.” Ranking Member Jim Jordan said the bill was designed to benefit the majority by “tilting the playing field in their favor.”

Jordan denounced the bill for requiring states to offer early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, same day voter registration, automatic voter registration, paid leave for federal workers to be poll workers, to allow released felons to vote, to make Election Day a federal holiday, and to have taxpayer contributions finance campaigns. 

“So lets take a whack at a little summary here, professor,” Jordan said during his questioning of Bradley Smith, chair of the Institute for Free Speech and former chair of the Federal Election Commission, who testified at the invitation of the minority.

“H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for a holiday on Election Day for government workers. H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for six days of paid leave for government workers who want to be poll workers. H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for politicians’ campaigns. And if those same taxpayers give to some organization, some (c)(4), they can be outed under H.R. 1 so that the left can — or anyone — could harass them or their family.”

“Yes,” Smith said. “Such a deal for the taxpayer, right?”

The bill, sponsored by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, is the first serious attempt in decades to revamp the model for public financing of presidential campaigns and establish a national program to publicly finance congressional campaigns. It also expands rights and protections for voters; bans senior federal officials from getting private sector perks after they leave office; prohibits senior federal employees from working on issues in which they have financial interests; and strengthens the call for Trump to divest his business holdings and place them in an independent, blind trust. Trump is the only president who hasn’t done so.

Georgia Rep. Jody Hice said in opening remarks that he was “extremely alarmed” by the bill and that while its provision for automatic voter registration “may sound good on the surface,” it would “open the floodgates for fraudulent voting by illegal individuals in this country.”

“It’s virtually 600 pages. Almost every page has issues of great concern,” he said. In just under three minutes, the congressperson referenced “illegals” or being in the country “illegally” nine times.

The bill also equips the Office of Government Ethics with subpoena power and the authority to impose disciplinary action on agencies and employees within the executive branch — “needed teeth,” as the office’s former director Walter Shaub said in written testimony to the committee.

But Jordan and his Republican colleague Rep. Mark Meadows argued that taxpayers shouldn’t have to finance elections, let alone contribute to the campaigns of candidates whom they oppose. Meadows pointed to the fact that his own campaign was largely funded by small individual donors, and that under the measure, he’d get $3.8 million for re-election.

Louisiana Rep. Clay Higgins conceded that the bill might have some worthwhile measures, but said he wanted to see it broken down into smaller components that would suit individual state needs. He also said the bill “resembles Russian government policy.”

Bipartisan legislation to strengthen democratic institutions in ways similar to those outlined in H.R. 1 have already passed at the local and state levels, Karen Hobert Flynn testified. She’s the president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization focused on reducing the role of big money in politics. In written testimony to the committee, Flynn cited “more than 20 red, blue and purple states and localities [that have] passed pro-voter democracy reforms, with strong support from Republican, Independent, and Democratic voters.”

Smith said his primary concern with the bill was its infringement on first amendment protections of free speech — wherein political spending is a form of speech. He said the bill would expand the universe of what Congress could regulate as political spending or speech, including ads. And he argued that in public financing there “tend to be avenues for corruption in many ways.”

But in all the concerns raised about voter fraud and abridging freedom of speech by reining in the influence of large donors, the minority never addressed the specter of partisan gerrymandering that’s historically benefited their party, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley pointed out. The ACLU filed suit last year to challenge gerrymandering in Ohio, citing Jordan’s 4th District as one of seven that were drawn with “borders that defy explanation by any political boundary or geographical feature.” H.R. 1 would put an independent commission in charge of redistricting duties, taking that responsibility away from state legislatures.

“That is really convenient, and rich, and hypocritical,” Pressley said.

“H.R. 1 has been described as a wishlist by the Democrats,” she continued. “Well, you got us there. A wishlist for an inclusive, expanded democracy and electorate.

“Characterizations of H.R. 1 as a power grab — you got us again,” Pressley said, referencing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments on the push to make Election Day a federal holiday.

“Guilty,” she said. “We wouldn’t have to grab back the power for the people if through policy you weren’t complicit in, or perpetuating, the disenfranchisement and marginalization of the people. And disproportionately, people of color. And disproportionately, black people.”

Meadows had a heated exchange with Shaub, the former head of the OGE, in which he suggested the latter’s support for an investigative mandate for OGE was politically motivated against President Donald Trump. Meadows cited Shaub’s testimony to an oversight subcommittee in December 2015 in which he said he thought the OGE didn’t need an investigative mandate, expressing shock at Shaub’s change of heart “all of a sudden.”

“No, it’s not all of a sudden at all,” Shaub said. “It’s after watching, for two years, somebody prove to me that the executive branch ethics program is much weaker and much more fragile than I ever thought it was. Frankly, I was naive.”

“I never imagined,” Shaub went on, “a president would come in and refuse to eliminate his conflicts of interest, have appointees who are completely disinterested in government ethics, and have — with all respect — a Congress refuse to exercise oversight over them in that respect.”

Meadows argued that he made the same point in 2015 and Shaub disagreed with him then. “I’ll just say, you were right,” Shaub conceded to laughter. Meadows agreed.

Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs said that during his time in the state Senate, he helped pass legislation to implement no-excuse absentee ballots and early voting within 30 days before the election. “We don’t have lines anymore, and we don’t need a federal holiday so you can go vote. You got 30 days to go vote. If you can’t vote in 30 days by mail or by absentee, that just raises a lot of interesting questions about your voting — your abilities.”

During her questioning, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Flynn, “If I want to run a campaign that is entirely funded by corporate political action committees, is there anything that legally prevents me from doing that?”

“No,” Flynn said.

Ocasio-Cortez later pulled out an op-ed Smith authored for the Washington Post titled, “Those payments to women were unseemly. That doesn’t mean they were illegal.”

“Okay, great. So, green light for hush money,” she said. “I can do all sorts of terrible things. It’s totally legal right now for me to pay people off. And that’s considered speech — that money’s considered speech.”

Correction: February 8, 2019
A previous version of this story misidentified Clay Higgins as a Tennessee representative. He is a representative for Louisiana.

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