House Democrats’ first bill since taking power in the 2018 elections has the modest aim of entirely reforming how American democracy functions: It would overhaul the campaign-finance system to encourage small donors and unmask dark money; place stringent new ethics rules on officials from all three branches of government, including the president and Supreme Court justices; and implement automatic voter-registration nationwide while ending partisan gerrymandering in federal elections.
The bill got its first hearing on Tuesday in front of the House Judiciary Committee. This is a big step: For the past eight years in a Republican House, a bill like HR1 almost certainly would not receive anything beyond a bunch of press releases. Tuesday’s hearing was the first time in recent history that an anti-corruption bill of this scale began moving through Congress, even if its fate is sealed upon arrival in the Senate.
The hearing is also where proponents of HR1 came face-to-face with the legislation’s two biggest obstacles: a rigged political process and loads of misinformation.
A quick survey of the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee reveals a system that makes it hard for certain people to vote, and near-impossible for some congressional districts to send anything but a member of one party to Congress, regardless of who runs. These are exactly the problems HR1 aims to address, but the beneficiaries of that system stand on the front line against it.
Of the 17 Republicans on the committee, 15 come from states with voter-identification laws, according to a Nation analysis—over 88 percent of the committee. (Seventy percent of states have some form of voter-identification laws.) One of the two Republicans whom this does not apply to, Representative Guy Reschenthaler, is from Pennsylvania, where the legislature passed a strict voter-ID law that courts keep striking down, and so the law is not in force.
Moreover, eight of those Republicans represent districts in states the National Conference of State Legislatures classifies as having a “strict” voter-identification law, meaning that someone without proper identification must vote on a provisional ballot and then take additional steps after Election Day to ensure their vote is counted. Only 20 percent of states have “strict” voting-rights laws, but representatives from those states make up 47 percent of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee.
HR1 would also end partisan gerrymandering by establishing federal guidelines on drawing neutral districts. And Republicans on the committee benefit from rigged districts to a remarkable degree: All but one member represent a district that has a greater than 95 percent chance of putting a Republican in Congress. (Representative Kelly Armstrong, who represents the entire state of North Dakota, was not included in this analysis.)
Not surprisingly, these members made it clear they don’t like any part of HR1—and in some cases, don’t understand the bill at all, nor the problems it seeks to address.
Representative Ken Buck of Colorado began his questioning by declaring that “the Democrat Party has a long history of stealing elections in this country.” He reached back to the 1928 election of Huey Long in Louisiana to illustrate his point, along with the phony, Fox News–driven “scandal” involving the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia during the 2008 election, and the erroneous claim that the DNC rigged the 2016 presidential primary against Bernie Sanders.
Part of HR1 would restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies, and Representative Matt Gaetz used that as a launching point to describe the crimes of several child rapists and pose a question about whether they should actually be allowed to vote, particularly on referendums involving monitoring of child sex offenses.
Democrats on the panel laughed out loud during Buck’s tirade, and later in the hearing, Representative David Cicilline noted that “Republican opposition to these reforms, as seen by the almost farcical arguments that we heard during this hearing, is obviously because they benefit from this broken system, as do their donors and their Super PACs.”
The official witnesses selected by committee Republicans revealed, by the nature of their résumés, that the party isn’t willing to engage honestly on several of the issues HR1 aims to address. J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky were the two witnesses for the minority, and their selection was an odd self-own by Republicans, in that both men were members of President Trump’s “election integrity” commission that disbanded without finding one piece of evidence to support the claim of widespread voter fraud.
Adams, as Ari Berman has detailed, is a fabulist who has claimed in a series of “reports” that an “alien invasion” of illegal nonvoters had descended on Virginia.
Vanita Gupta, a former Department of Justice official who is now president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and was testifying on behalf of HR1, made sure the committee was aware of von Spakovsky’s unreliable history—and did so while von Spakovsky sat, stone-faced, just a few feet away.
“I think it is important for members to understand that Mr. von Spakovsky has made a career out of giving misleading testimony,” she said, citing last year’s Fish v Kobach case, in which a federal judge wrote, “The court gives little weight to Mr. von Spakovsky’s opinion and report, because they are premised on several misleading and unsupported examples” of alleged noncitizen voting. The judge went on to say von Spakovsky gave “myriad misleading statements” and charged that his advocacy had “led him to cherry-pick evidence in support of his opinion.”
But von Spakovsky and Adams were outnumbered by four majority witnesses. And committee Republicans are outnumbered as well.
“It’s nice to be in the majority,” Representative Pramila Jayapal told reporters after the hearing. She is a member of the committee and a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We’re gonna be pushing for real accountability for our democracy to work better, for people to have voting rights. I think the hearing was actually really good, and our members and witnesses really pushed back and made the Republicans look, I think, ridiculous and small. This is a losing issue for them.”