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Rebuilding America’s Democracy

By Robert Weissman

Over the past decade, Public Citizen has helped build an ever-expanding grassroots movement to rescue our democracy from the iron grip of Big Money.

Now, thanks to that movement, the Democratic leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives has made H.R. 1 – the first piece of legislation considered by the new House – a sweeping pro-democracy and anti-corruption package. This will be the most consequential pro-democracy legislation of the past 50 years.

Within a week of introduction, a majority of the House had added their name as co-sponsors, meaning its passage is guaranteed. That’s not enough, but it is the first step in making it the law of the land.

We had a hand in crafting a number of the key proposals included in H.R. 1, which is sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), and is titled the For the People Act. There are improvements that we hope will be made as the bill moves through the House, but the original draft is extraordinary and momentous.

H.R. 1 will drive Big Money out of politics: A handful of superrich people are shaping our elections. Candidates spend their time begging for cash from the wealthy and legislating to fulfill their desires – which are dramatically different than the wants and needs of regular people. The superrich don’t just have an outsized influence over who wins but what gets discussed in campaigns and what legislative ideas receive serious consideration.

H.R. 1 would replace the current, corrupt campaign finance system with one that relies on small donors and public matching funds. It ends dark money by forcing disclosure of all election-related spending, and it calls for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Protecting the right to vote : Empowered by a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, state Republicans have adopted a wide range of schemes to keep people of color and young people away from the polls. And President Donald Trump, of course, has done everything in his power to encourage, enable and expand these voter suppression efforts. Altogether, these efforts are keeping hundreds of thousands, and probably millions, of Americans away from the polls.

H.R. 1 would enact same-day and automatic voter registration, and it commits to protect the sacred right to vote by calling for restoration of the Voting Rights Act.

Voters get to decide: Gerrymandering has become the science of subverting democracy – fostering a rigged system in which politicians hand pick their electorate. Armed with sophisticated computer programs, state officials are drawing congressional districts (as well as those for state houses) with mathematical precision to advance the interest of whatever party is in power in the state. Historically, both parties are guilty of severe gerrymandering, but Republicans took advantage of their 2010 sweep of state elections to draw districts wildly in their favor.

H.R. 1 would establish that districts must be based on transparent factors rather than partisan self-interest.

Curtailing corruption: Trump is a walking, talking violation of basic standards of ethics and morality. But it’s not just Trump himself. His administration has enabled a total corporate takeover of our government, with former corporate lobbyists, lawyers and executives in charge of agencies overseeing the industries for which they previously worked (and likely will again).

H.R. 1 would force the president to reveal his tax returns, and calls for a sell-off of all business interests. It would slam shut the revolving door through which lobbyists go into government. And it would establish an ethics office and binding ethics rules on members of Congress.

Of course, winning passage in the House is not going to turn this bill into law. We have to get it through the Senate and signed by the president. To put it modestly, that is not likely to happen in the next two years. But what we do now – right now – will determine whether we are poised to turn this sweeping reform into law when Trump is gone. We’re going to do everything we possibly can.