Three Lessons Learned From the For the People Act

This op-ed originally appeared in RealClearPolitics

Last week, in the face of rising authoritarianism around the world and with their new majority in the House, Democrats passed the most robust package of democracy reform proposals in a generation, albeit along a strictly party-line vote.

It was an important moment for the political party whose candidates ran on a reform agenda in the 2018 midterms, and whose 2020 presidential hopefuls are embracing the same messaging. But Democrats also knew from the start that the For the People Act was never going to pass the Senate or be signed into law by President Trump.

 So, a bill aimed at improving self-government is now dead on arrival because of the problems currently facing our system of self-government. As the CEO of an organization that did not endorse HR 1, but shares the goal of fixing our broken political system, here are my key takeaways:
First, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in the House deserve credit for making political reform their top priority. Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, who authored the legislation, thought broadly and imaginatively about the various systemic failures we’re facing. He knocked down the silos around a host of issues — from campaign finance to redistricting to voting access to the enforcement of electoral laws to preventing foreign actors from interfering in our democracy — in recognition that these are big problems that cannot be fixed piecemeal. In doing so, the Democrats are operating in the slipstream of public opinion as they answer the call for solutions from a vast majority of Americans who believe our political system is broken, and tell us so in poll after poll. Last year, those polls were confirmed with support for more than 19 political reform initiatives across the states.
Second, the bill will fail because it has no path forward in the upper chamber: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to not take it up. Meanwhile, the legislation was not crafted with any input from Republican lawmakers, and while it has the support of the entire House Democratic caucus, not a single Republican co-sponsored or voted for it. Leadership is more than the art of devising good ideas. It also entails building coalitions around solutions so they can be turned into reality. The public is sick of “messaging bills” and symbolic maneuvers the two parties keep devising to try to jolt their bases or corner the other party into looking bad, all just to win a few competitive seats every two years.
If one thing should be abundantly clear from the last few election cycles: We, the voters, want concrete problem solving, not more noise and division. For laws to pass — and to endure as shifts in political power occur — they must have bipartisan support. HR 1 is a cautionary tale for congressional lawmakers that who supports your legislation is just as important as what it seeks to accomplish. We know from extensive work on Capitol Hill and around the country that there are many Republicans in both the House and Senate who would be interested in having bold conversations about how to fix our republic, if they are asked. Those conversations need to be contextualized before they can be bold, though. Time and time again, I’ve been surprised by how uninformed members of Congress are about what solutions are possible, and to what extent the Supreme Court is — or is not — a barrier to reform.  

Third, the debate around HR 1 has brought out the worst instincts of those resistant to reform. The bill has been under relentless attack by many forces in Washington for months, based largely on fear — fear of rocking a boat that most Americans would like to see either sunk or completely re-rigged. Shortly after the bill was introduced, McConnell penned a highly partisan an op-ed in the Washington Post filled with half-truths and distortions.

The playbook from the defenders of the status quo is the one they use against any attempt to reform the political system, whether at the local, state or federal level. Opponents labeled the bill the Democrat Politician Protection Act, but it does not benefit one party more than the other. They claimed that the Federal Election Commission would be a “political tool for the president,” leaving out that the Senate has the constitutional responsibility to confirm the agency’s nominees. Detractors have peddled the incorrect notion that dark money and anonymously funded outside groups in our elections cannot be held to account — when Congress has the responsibility and power to protect our elections, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision upheld disclosure requirements, perhaps most strongly articulated by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

In theatrical circles, this kind of moment is called dramatic irony — when characters make self-defeating decisions they wouldn’t make if they knew what the audience knew. It’s like a horror movie in which a character is about to walk into the basement, where the monster lies in wait. The audience knows the monster is down there, but the character seems almost foolishly unaware. In this case, the characters are members of Congress who refuse to get together and begin piecing our political system back together. The audience, of course, is the voters. But here’s a plot twist: The audience is also the monster, who will begin taking down the politicians if they continue to perpetuate a system that no longer works.

Nick Penniman is the founder and CEO of Issue One, a cross-partisan movement to renew and rebuild our political system through campaign finance, ethics and other reforms.