The For The People Act Attempts To Foster Civic Engagement And Transparency, But It Is A Product of The Very Lack Of These Things
The US House of Representatives under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Majority has passed the For The People Act of 2019. The aim of H.R. 1 is “…[T]o expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and for other purposes.” Democrats have hailed the bill as a major victory for voting rights and ethics. There is, however, no victory. The For The People Act is dead on arrival in the Senate under the leadership of Mitch McConnell. Labeling the bill the “Democrat Politician Protection Act,” Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans are attempting to frame the legislation as a “power grab” and socialist initiative. Although the legislation features some solid policy options, the flawed legislative process has tainted what could have been a well-supported effort to reform America’s political system.
Clearly, the For The People Act features the priorities of Democrats, yet it also contains many policies that would help address a number of critical issues in America’s political system. The bill would require all States to offer automatic voter registration, make Election Day a Federal holiday, and require independent redistricting commissions to help prevent partisan gerrymandering. It would also require nonprofits to disclose their large donors as part of an effort to confront “dark money” in politics while requiring Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates to release their tax returns. Although these provisions can easily garner widespread support, the laundry list of the other proposed policy shifts requires a great deal more scrutiny that is absent. Lowering the voting age to 16 is a serious change that should probably be put in the hands of voters, i.e. one must ask whether younger Americans are mature enough, educated enough, and wise enough to vote. The establishment of a public campaign finance system should certainly not be a line-item in a 500-page piece of legislation.
The For The People Act was introduced on January 3, 2019, yet the legislation received very little attention throughout the three months it was circulated among 10 committees as it amassed 51 amendments covering a variety of subjects. If the bill was truly “for the People,” Democrats would have championed the initiative as the top priority of their public policy platform. A bill that allegedly hopes to encourage civic engagement and create transparency in the political system should, after all, be enacted with the aid of civic engagement in the most transparent manner possible. Recalling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s remarks on the lengthy Affordable Care Act: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it….” It is clear the Speaker has not learned her lesson. Passing a piece of legislation then trying to sell it to the American People poisons the legislative process and the legislation, which is why Republicans could not vote for it. For the legislative process to capitalize on civic engagement and transparency, the input of the American People is needed throughout the entire legislative process as a public policy option is shaped.
For their part, the response of Republicans demonstrates the other half of the problem with the legislative process. Mitch McConnell’s refusal to debate and hold a vote on the For The People Act, "[b]ecause I get to decide what we vote on….,” exemplifies the obstructionism that prevents government from actually confronting problems. A single member of Congress should not have the power to decide the public policy agenda of the entire country. The House Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader have their positions to facilitate the legislative process, not derail it. McConnell will take up pieces of legislation like the so-called Green New Deal, because there are not likely enough votes to pass any proposed legislation while there are plenty of lobbyists bankrolled by wealthy industries to oppose it. The For The People Act, in contrast, addresses issues that threaten the power of politicians. More importantly, few lobbyists are willing to openly oppose public policy initiatives of these kinds against the American People, i.e. politicians have to play the role of their own special interest lobbyists.
With that in mind, the overall problem the For The People Act emphases is a failure of Congress to pass legislation with the input and consent of the American People. The passage of H.R. 1 by the US House is a political show designed to impress Democratic voters, but it is also part of an effort to lay the groundwork for the passage of future iterations of the same legislation when Democrats retake the White House and Senate. Unfortunately, the political strategy is simply a means to force Democrats to make future votes in line with their current votes and to suss out potential backlash among the populous. It is not part of an effort to improve the proposed legislation through civic engagement and transparency. The objective is to simply get enough votes to eventually pass any and all legislation that serves the public policy agendas of political leaders and special interests backers. What the legislation process actually needs to do is invite the American People into the policy-making process. That is what Speaker Pelosi failed to do when crafting the “For The American People Act” and what Majority Leader McConnell failed to do when he refused to vote on it in the Senate.
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