HR 1, the legislation that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced in the first hours of the 116th Congress, is ambitious and remarkably wide-ranging. It proposes numerous electoral and public-ethics reforms. In most cases, these changes are both needed and long overdue. The vast scope of this law is itself an indictment of the corrosion afflicting the machinery of American government.
The bill isn’t headed for the statute book - not with this Congress and this president - but this or something like it certainly ought to be. The 571-page omnibus promises to make voting easier, strengthen ethics laws for government officials, and reduce the influence of money in politics. The last of those would need the cooperation of the U.S. Supreme Court, but a competent and responsible legislature and executive could do most of the rest if they chose to.
After Russia’s activities in 2016, there shouldn’t be any dispute about the need for security upgrades to the nation’s patchwork voting systems. The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to designate election infrastructure as “critical” and to make threat assessments before elections. It provides grants for improving and maintaining electoral systems, and requires all state voting systems to produce a paper trail of votes that can be audited after an election.
The bill’s efforts to make voting easier are similarly overdue. Needless obstacles to voting - including voter-roll purges, “proof of citizenship” laws or other methods, often under a false banner of combating “voter fraud” - have proliferated and should be cleared away. (The apparent fraud in a 2018 North Carolina election was allegedly perpetrated by a political operative manipulating absentee ballots; it had nothing to do with fraud committed by voters, which is exceedingly rare.)
The bill would require states to register voters automatically and allow citizens to register online on the day of the election. It provides for at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections, re-enfranchisement of felons who have served their time, and grants for states to develop better-trained poll workers.
The law would improve transparency by requiring super-PACs and other financial conduits to disclose donors who contribute more than $10,000. It would require unions, corporations and other buyers of political ads to disclose their backers. It would end the Federal Election Commission’s partisan deadlock and enable it to enforce election laws. It would tighten conflict-of-interest rules and demand greater disclosure from lobbyists and buyers of their services. It would end partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to adopt independent redistricting commissions. And so on.
Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, the lead sponsor of HR 1, says the bill will be broken into pieces and sent to relevant committees for hearings and markups. Then the elements will be reconstituted, voted on as a single reform package and presented to the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has already castigated the plan as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.” That is an unworthy and unacceptable response.
The machinery of American government is sorely in need of repair, and putting that right should not be a partisan endeavor. This bill deserves serious consideration. For a deeper look at the legislation, see “HR 1 Is Enormous and Necessary.”