By Rachel Curley, Public Citizen
Earlier this month President Trump signed a bi-partisan budget deal that raises the debt ceiling and establishes a broad outline for $2.7 trillion in federal spending over the next two years. While this deal creates topline numbers for the federal budget it does not actually fund agencies and programs, leaving that task to Congress to finish up before the September 30th deadline. Because Congress must pass a budget (or it will shut down) these appropriations bills have become a magnet in the past for policies that cannot become law on their own. It’s time for Congress to stop hijacking the budget process for individual, partisan goals and to instead focus on creating a democracy that is truly powered by the people.
For years, conservatives in Congress have snuck language deep into federal budget bills meant to make it harder to reign in the flood of secret corporate cash that has saturated the political landscape for the last decade. In 2016 Public Citizen caught language in the Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) appropriations bill that forbid the SEC from finalizing rules that would require corporations to be honest about the money they spend to influence our politics. This is a critical transparency reform that America needs to expose who is truly paying to influence voters when they go to the polls. However, an undisclosed member of Congress, clearly interested in protecting their secret corporate donors, blocked the SEC from finalizing this measure.
Another one of these policy “riders” snuck into the FSGG bill stopped the IRS from creating sensible rules that would drive secret nonprofit election spending into the light, where it belongs. The rules as they currently stand are difficult to follow and enforce, and this leads small nonprofits to refrain from nonpartisan civic engagement because they’d rather spend their resources on their mission, not lawyers. On the other hand, powerful nonprofit groups abuse the vague system with impunity, spending just as much of their tax- deductible donations as their legally allowed on influencing elections.
Finally, the last anti- democracy rider tucked into the federal spending bill blocked the Executive Branch from requiring companies seeking federal contracts to disclose their political spending. It’s just common sense that a company getting tax dollars for doing business for the government should be transparent about its political engagement. It’s important to ensure that corporations are not buying politicians who will in turn award them lucrative government contracts.
The 2019 midterm elections ushered in an historic freshman class of members dedicated to reforming the political system and restoring power to the people. Speaker Pelosi and incumbent Democrats embraced this clarion call and made their very first order of business- H.R.1- passing the For the People Act, which shines light on dark money, strengthens ethic rules, and increases voter participation in our elections. Following the passage of this momentous package of reforms, Democrats in the House continued to keep their promise to reform our political system by passing a Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill that removed these harmful anti- democracy riders and increased funding for election security by $600 million.
Breaking through the Death Star in the Senate
Now, the fight moves to the Senate where the landscape is much less favorable. Self-proclaimed “Darth Vader” of campaign finance reform, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a formidable foe to voters across the country looking to rebalance the power of our democracy and put it back in the hands of the people. If aggressively altering Senate rules to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and install two Republican judges to the highest court in the land wasn’t bad enough, McConnell is refusing to even hold a vote in the Senate on critical House-passed democracy legislation such as the For the People Act, the most significant democracy reform package in a generation, and the SAFE Act, which would provide increased funding for election security.
We cannot ease the pressure now and let Leader McConnell continue to erode our basic democratic norms and standards. The final report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his recent testimony on Capitol Hill detailed widespread, systematic election interference from the Russians in 2016 and the ways in which President Trump and his campaign welcomed this help from Russia.
It’s critical that Senators on the Appropriations Committee as well as Leader Schumer hear from the American people about how important it is that these anti- democracy riders come out of the final federal spending package.
The fight for the heart and soul of our democracy is far from over, but the passage of the For the People Act in the House and the removal of the sneaky anti- democracy riders prove that it is possible to elect politicians who will actually fix the system.
We can’t stop fighting now.