One year ago, the U.S. House of Representatives—under Democratic leadership—passed historic democracy reform legislation: H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act. In the year since the bill’s passage, momentum for bold democracy reform has surged at the local, state, federal, and presidential levels. At a time when trust in government is near an all-time low, Americans are demanding strong solutions to curb the culture of corruption and to protect their right to vote. These pro-democracy solutions would increase the likelihood of Congress passing key policies supported by hardworking American families, such as lowering prescription drug prices, protecting clean air and water, and reducing the epidemic of gun violence, to name just a few.
Americans’ expectations for democracy reform helped trigger another significant milestone: Every major Democratic presidential candidate is now running on a promise to fight for major structural democracy reform, according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s analysis of candidates’ policy platforms and public statements. And, as discussed below, every Democratic elected official at the federal level supports the For the People Act, which means these reforms could become a reality in the future.
The far-reaching policy solutions in the For the People Act
H.R. 1 contains three groundbreaking pillars of reform. Each pillar includes multiple policy solutions to build a stronger democracy that will more fairly represent all people, including disadvantaged communities who often have been kept from realizing the American dream:
- Reduce the corrupting influence of corporate and deep-pocketed interests that dominate the federal government’s policymaking process. Solutions include requiring far greater political spending disclosure, strengthening online political ad disclosures, tightening rules governing super PACs, and restructuring the Federal Election Commission so that the agency can robustly enforce election laws. Especially noteworthy is a new federal matching system for small-dollar donations, modeled on successful systems around the country, which will give the American people a stronger voice in politics while making it easier for a diverse range of candidates and candidates without wealthy donor networks to run for public office.
- Protect and expand Americans’ right to vote. Solutions include creating automatic voter registration nationwide, instituting same-day registration, expanding early voting, prohibiting inappropriate voter roll purges, and committing to restore the Voting Rights Act. Especially noteworthy reforms include ending partisan gerrymandering by requiring independent redistricting commissions and helping to prevent interference in U.S. elections by foreign entities or others bent on weakening the nation’s democracy.
- Restore ethics and accountability for government officials in order to help break the influence economy in Washington. Solutions include expanding conflict of interest laws, requiring top elected and appointed officials to take commonsense steps to divest from their financial holdings, slowing the revolving door between government and the private sector, and mandating presidents to disclose their tax returns. Especially noteworthy reforms include overhauling the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and ensuring that government watchdogs finally have the resources they need to actively enforce the law.
The proclamations of support for these reforms represent significant mile markers on the road to creating a political system that works for everyday Americans instead of only for corporations and special interests.
H.R. 1’s journey in Congress
During 2019, the For the People Act made huge headway, with passage in the House and co-sponsorship by all Democratic senators from across the ideological spectrum.
H.R. 1 was passed by the House
In January 2019, the House welcomed a huge new class of reformers, most of whom had run on a promise to curb the culture of corruption in the federal government. These new legislators promoted aggressive reforms to help stop the most well-connected and powerful interests from blocking action on important policies supported by the majority of Americans. This freshman class was elected after many of them had raised record amounts of contributions from small-dollar donors and refused to accept corporate PAC money.
Under the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), assisted by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) and others, House Democrats unanimously voted on March 8, 2019, to pass the once-in-a-generation For the People Act. Given its symbolic importance, Speaker Pelosi designated this legislation as H.R. 1—the first piece of legislation in the new congressional session. Despite a public outpouring of support for democracy reform legislation such as H.R. 1, not a single House Republican voted in favor of passage.
Democrats in the Senate are united in their support for H.R. 1’s companion bill
In the U.S. Senate, all 47 Democratic senators co-sponsored that chamber’s counterpart legislation, S. 949, filed by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM). Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) helped to propel this reform package and committed to prioritizing democracy reform. Unfortunately, ignoring popular demand for this legislation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has repeatedly refused to allow the Senate to vote on it, and President Donald Trump promised to veto it should it pass the Senate.
Major momentum since H.R. 1’s House passage
H.R. 1 has become a rallying cry within the mere year since its passage in the House. Democratic political leaders are firmly coalesced around the need to fight for clear, strong solutions to curb the culture of corruption and empower voters.
Over the course of the 2019-2020 presidential election cycle, every major Democratic presidential candidate has announced their support for groundbreaking democracy reform, with all but one of them agreeing to make it a top agenda item if elected. Moreover, candidates routinely and powerfully discuss how the broken political system stops Congress from passing widely supported policies.
Momentum also continues in Congress, where the House—and occasionally the Senate—has passed critically important democracy reform bills. For example, the House passed the SHIELD Act and SAFE Act, which are designed to secure U.S. elections and reduce the sort of corrupt activity that led to the impeachment of President Trump. Although some members of Congress have been stalwart democracy reformers for several years, H.R. 1 helped propel these policies to the forefront of public debate.
States and localities are also pushing transformative solutions. These policies include dark money disclosure and automatic voter registration in Colorado; no-excuse absentee voting in Virginia; voting location flexibility in Kansas; and resolutions to overturn Citizens United, which have been passed by 20 states and over 800 municipalities representing 141 million Americans.
H.R. 1’s importance post-impeachment
The reforms in H.R. 1 follow the powerful precedent of the sweeping structural reforms that Congress enacted after the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. Today, in the wake of President Trump’s impeachment, the urgency for democracy reform has only been heightened. The United States’ corrupt political system must be reformed to help reduce the chances that a president creates another constitutional crisis, solicits election interference, or abuses their powers.
If policymakers are unable to rise to this pivotal post-impeachment moment, they risk cementing a system where the government and elected leaders, including the president, are not accountable to the people but instead can be sold to the highest bidder, including foreign governments.
The H.R. 1 legislative package opened a new chapter in this nation’s history, where Americans’ demands for bold democracy solutions have gained powerful currency. Every Democrat in Congress is on record supporting the For the People Act. And now, every major Democratic presidential candidate is running on a platform of policies that are impelled by democracy reforms. This new and sustained momentum signals that the United States may be on the verge of achieving a democracy that rejects the corrupting influences of wealthy special interests and instead more fairly represents all Americans.
Michael Sozan is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.