Political Reform, Politics

For the People or the Elite? – The Manchin Compromise

Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim is the essence of successful politics since it accepts the reality of compromise.  Thankfully, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia appreciates TR’s maxim and prevented the ideologues on both sides from torpedoing necessary electoral reform.  He has proposed only a set of principles at this point but they adopt many of the good provisions endorsed in my previous post and add new ones that improve on the more extreme provisions. 

First, the campaign finance section includes the DISCLOSE Act and Honest Ads act sections of the bill that would open dark money contributions to the light. No longer could large last-minute contributions be hidden from view until after the election.  He also strengthens enforcement of the Foreign Agent Registration Act and would address cybersecurity risks in election machinery. He also would make Election Day a holiday so more Americans would be able to participate in the process.

Sen. Manchin also takes the best of the voting rights provisions of the bill and adds a voting identification requirement that would allow utility bills and other less onerous methods to be used to verify identity. He would mandate a two-week early voting period that is already the practice in many states as well as automatic registration through drivers license offices. At the same time, states would be allowed to police their voter registration rolls by utilizing current interstate and federal mechanisms.

The two most controversial provisions deal with partisan gerrymandering and resuscitating the Voting Rights Act to control discrimination.  The original bill would not only ban partisan gerrymandering, but would impose compulsory one-size-fits-all processes in all states. For example, my home state of Montana just gained a congressional seat and now will have two seats. Drawing the lines for those two districts will be much more straightforward than in my former home of Texas, which will have 35 seats.  Manchin’s process for preventing gerrymandering is not yet clear, but envisions using objective computer models to reduce the ability of parties and incumbents to game the system.  

Rather than impose detailed prescriptive regulations, Manchin proposes a more flexible way to prevent voting rights violations through a revised version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the late civil rights activist and congressman.    It would impose federal pre-clearance of electoral changes on any state and local jurisdiction with more than 15 voting rights violation in the previous 25 years. At the same time, he would require sufficient judicial review before any such finding could be made and create a way for a jurisdiction to end the pre-clearance process.  This would create a realistic enforcement mechanism against any significant future abuses. 

A copy of Sen. Manchin’s proposals is attached below and another analysis of their implications can be found here.  The senator’s compromise is a step in the right direction, though it still could be improved in some areas. My next post will discuss why contributions solicited over the Internet are subject to abuse under current law and what could be done to prevent it.

Political Reform, Politics

For the People or the Elite? – The Good

The best parts of the For The People Act are found mainly in the section called the DISCLOSE Act, which plugs various holes in our campaign finance reform laws. In particular, the act attempts to roll back the pernicious effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the effects of undisclosed dark money in political campaigns by requiring any entity spending more than $10,000 per election to disclose all donors who gave above $1,000.  Corporate political contributions outside of registered PACs would have to be approved by shareholders.  Candidates would have to immediately disclose any contribution above $5,000 received in the 20-days before an election.  It also controls coordination between super-PACs and candidates by, for example, providing that if the staff of a Super-PAC has any actual tie to a candidate, it will be considered a coordinated expenditure and thus subject to the limits applicable to the candidate’s committee.  Finally, HR 1 would change the structure of the Federal Election Commission to reduce the Commission from six to five members but provide that no more than two can be from one party. This practically means one must be an independent.  Members would be picked from a group vetted by a blue-ribbon panel. To control any bias in their actions, the act provides for stronger judicial review of FEC enforcement decisions, including decisions to dismiss a complaint without investigation.

It also should be noted that the act would more closely regulate websites like this one. Specifically, if a website mentioned a federal candidate within 20 days of the election, it would be required to fully disclose its ownership. To comply with this requirement, I have expanded the disclosure about the ownership of the site in the “About – The Editor” page of this side to include my address.

HR 1 also controls foreign influence in our elections by authorizing new civil and criminal penalties for violations of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. It would be clear that foreign agent includes an agent for a foreign business. It also requires voting machine manufacturers be owned or controlled by U.S. citizens and report cyber-security incidents.

Ethical guidelines for members of Congress and the executive branch would also be strengthened under the act.  Government officials would be required to refrain from participating in matters in which a prior employer had an interest. It reduces the revolving door between business and government by increasing the cooling-off period before a former official can lobby his previous agency from one to two years. It also outlaws a disturbing practice of private sector bonuses to employees who join the government, an especially common practice in the financial services industry. Finally, congressmembers will be required to reimburse the Treasury for any awards or settlements for employment discrimination suits against them.

Even the controversial voter registration and voter integrity sections of the bill contain some important protections. First, it requires states to share voter registration information to reduce duplicate cross- state registrations.  A voluntary system for this already exists called the Electronic Registration Information Center.  It also prohibits the deceptive practices regarding the time, place, and manner of voting. Duplicate paper ballots and risk-limiting audits of election results would be used as a check against the reliability of electronic machines.  A risk-limiting audit is a process whereby officials manually recount enough paper ballots to ensure the electronic tally is correct. Finally, the bill requires an early voting period for two weeks prior to the general election and would make Election Day itself a national holiday, thus encouraging citizens to become involved in the election process other than simply by voting.

These changes would help realize Theodore Roosevelt’s goal of reducing the influence of special interest money in our elections and making them more fair and accurate. However, the act could have been much better. In the next post, I will discuss the bad of the Act; that is, the provisions that would damage the election process but could be reformed or improved to still achieve it.

General, Political Reform, Politics

For the People or the Elite?

“If our political institutions were perfect, they would absolutely prevent the political domination of money in any part of our affairs. We need to make our political representatives more quickly and sensitively responsive to the people whose servants they are. More direct action by the people in their own affairs under proper safeguards is vitally necessary… It is particularly important that all monies received or expanded for campaign purposes should be publicly accounted for not only after election, but before election as well. Political action must be made simpler, easier, and free or from confusion for every citizen.”     

This quotation from Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech about the need for electoral reform is as urgently relevant as it was in 1910.   It neatly summarized the goals such a reform should have:

  • The reduction of the influence of special interest money and power
  • Increasing voter participation, while also
  • Creating more confidence in the electoral process and outcomes
  • Strengthening ethics and conflicts of interest rules for political leaders

The Senate will soon be considering a package of political and electoral reforms called the For the People Act (HR 1) passed on a party-line vote by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.  It is a massive mash-up of changes in election law in the following areas:

  • Voter Registration and Rights
  • Election Integrity and security
  • Campaign Finance Transparency
  • Lobbying Regulations
  • Ethics Reform

The bill contains some necessary changes to achieve the four goals mentioned above. However, it also contains provisions that would actually reduce confidence in our democratic institutions and potentially increase the influence of foreign money and special interests. I will highlight the good, bad and ugly provisions over the next few posts. The ugliness of some of the changes will require significant amendments to the bill for it to achieve TR’s vision.

Unfortunately, I have to lead with one of it ugliest failings – the bill’s length.  It is an 886-page legislative monstrosity whose length and complex mandates makes any thoughtful consideration of its effects very difficult. While biased in favor of the bill, the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School provides a good annotated description of all of the bill’s changes. Ironically, it also illustrates why such an omnibus bill was unnecessary because the descriptions under each title refer to previous bills or current laws that address related issues.  It shows how the bill could easily be broken down to a series of  amendments to past reforms. Instead, the Senate must consider changes to the most fundamental democratic rights we have in a process of legislative chaos. It is chaotic because many changes have a knock-on effect on the rest of them.

At the very least, the Senate should resist the siren call of liberal globalists to vote on the bill without first sending it to committee for open hearings and the consideration of necessary amendments. A bi-partisan bill could then be crafted or it could be broken up into a series of bills. It would also be an opportunity to educate the public about the underlying issues and thus insure that one of TR’s primary goals of increasing confidence in the electoral system is achieved.

There is no question that our political system is broken and needs reform. However, a bill that lacks legitimacy and reasonable input from the American people will automatically be doomed to failure.  My next post will concentrate on those provisions of the bill that enact true reforms, primarily regarding campaign finance and governmental ethics.