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Congressional Democrats this month passed HR 1, dubbed the 'For the People Act,” which they say is nothing short of a rescue plan for American democracy. It contains a long list of new regulations that seek to bolster participation in elections.
It's one of those bills with a universally agreeable name. How could anyone be against The People?
It could more accurately be called the For the Partisans Act. Some of its provisions work to relegate heterodox political movements even further to the fringes of political participation, while further entrenching the power of establishment political interests. It's a nice deal if you're already well served by our political system.
A lot of HR 1 is made up of good ideas for voting in federal elections - easier voter registration, felon voting rights and vote-by-mail accessibility. But not every good idea demands a national mandate, which may create logistical and constitutional challenges. Republican alarmists aren't totally wrong when they call it a federal takeover of elections.
It's a big bill so some of the finer points get lost in the chatter. What's pitched as a plan to empower voters is more complicated than that. Measures on political spending could instead stifle dissenting speech.
Third-party organizers take issue with new campaign funding schemes contained in the legislation, which would expand public funding for campaigns but also increase the threshold to qualify.
The mark to receive matching funds for a presidential primary would increase from $100,000 to $500,000, while congressional candidates would need to raise $50,000. There would be additional requirements for donation sizes and locations of donors.
Howie Hawkins, the 2020 Green Party presidential nominee, says those thresholds are 'beyond the reach of third-party candidates.”
'In short, the HR 1 public campaign finance system is a scam to add public money to all the private money corporate major-party incumbents can raise, while making it hard for challengers, whether inside a major party or in a third party, to even qualify for public funding,” Hawkins wrote last month.
The legislation also would allow national committees to spend up to $100 million in support of their party's presidential campaign. Obviously only two political parties, the Republicans and Democrats, have that kind of money lying around.
The bill seeks to establish minimum standards for early voting in every state. Encouraging people to vote earlier may be detrimental to upstart and third-party candidates, who don't have the resources for several months of voter contact and advertisements. The connection between more early voting days and higher turnout is tenuous.
Besides campaigns, HR 1 could have a chilling effect on other political activism. A diverse set of interest groups on the right and the left object to spending and transparency mandates in the legislation.
Issue advocacy groups that mention candidates would be required to disclose their donors, even if they aren't expressly supporting or opposing candidates. Some organizations would also have to include donors' names in their ads.
Those measures are sure to turn away some donors who don't want their names publicized, and likely to silence some groups that can't afford compliance costs.
It creates an especially difficult situation for groups that don't toe a party line. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, takes stances that don't neatly break down into left or right. A donor supporting the group's LGBTQ advocacy might be wary of their name being associated with certain religious liberty projects.
ACLU leaders wrote in a Washington Post guest column this month that the bill 'could directly interfere with the ability of many to engage in political speech about causes that they care about and that impact their lives by imposing new and onerous disclosure requirements on nonprofits committed to advancing those causes.”
The giant election reform package faces important objections from serious stakeholders, but there's little appetite for that kind of meaningful debate in Washington, D.C. You're either for The People or against them. It cleared the House with almost every Democrat in favor, including Iowa U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne.
Similar legislation by the same name was first introduced and passed by House Democrats in 2019. It was reintroduced in the new Congress and has only gotten longer and more complicated, now totaling nearly 900 pages. It has now passed the House in two different congresses, but the Senate is not expected to approve it.
HR 1 is a product of a federal legislature that doesn't care about legislating. A select few powerful lawmakers oversee the construction of huge legislative conglomerates, cobbled together using parts from smaller bills that have their own cute names and little hope of final passage. It's not for the people, it's for the partisans.
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