House Democrats Want to Turn Back the Clock on Campaign Finance

  • Legislation would require presidents to reveal their tax returns
  • Democrats want states to form independent redistricting boards

House Democrats say they want to try to reverse some of the effects of the Supreme Court decisions that allowed more money to flow to political organizations and permitted some big-dollar donors to keep their identities secret from the public.

Their legislation, which will be given the symbollically significant number H.R. 1, is intended to undo the effects of the rulings in the cases Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Shelby County v. Holder.

The campaign finance provisions are part of a wide-ranging bill that also tackles gerrymandering, voting rights, and the partisan deadlock on the Federal Election Commission.

“What people are saying to us is, act with ethics and integrity. So, we’ve got a set of reforms that focus on that idea: ethics, guidelines, and accountability,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in November. “This class that is arriving now, the class of 2018, has that message of reform pinned to their chest.”

Democrats have said they intend to make corruption-fighting one of the main issues they press as the majority party in the House.

“Democrats are determined to be the party that invites the American people back into their own democracy,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped write the bill as part of the caucus’s Democracy Reform Task Force. “From there we’ll have credibility to pursue other important policy initiatives.”

Major Provisions

Voter Registration: The Democrats’ bill would require states to make online voter registration available; to allow election day voter registration; and to automatically register eligible citizens. They would have to allow voting by mail and voting by felons who’ve completed their sentences.

It would bar “voter caging” in which voters are removed from rolls if mail is returned.

Early voting would have to be allowed for at least 15 consecutive days; voters would have to be given advance notice of polling location changes; and Election Day would be a day off for federal workers. The private sector would also be encouraged to observe it as a holiday.

The bill proposes penalties for trying to interfere with a person registering to vote, or for spreading false or misleading information about election timing or voter eligibility.

Gerrymandering: States would be required to use independent commissions to draw congressional district boundaries without trying to tilt the results for a particular political party.

Election Security: The measure would authorize grants to help states pay for updated paper-ballot systems, cybersecurity enhancements, and audits to verify election results without a full recount. The Homeland Security Department would be mandated to notify states about election infrastructure threats and offer awards to independent technical experts who discover cybersecurity vulnerabilities in state election systems.

Campaign Finance: The bill would outlaw contributions and expenditures from corporations with significant foreign ownership or control. Super political action committees and other nonprofit groups would have to disclose donors who provide more than $10,000. Digital platforms would be required to maintain databases of ad purchases and would be required to prevent foreign nationals from placing political ads.

Coordination Defined: The bill would clarify what kinds of spending should be considered illegal coordination between campaigns and super political action committees. It also would create and define a “coordinated spender” category under FEC rules to ensure single-candidate super PACs don’t operate as campaign affiliates.

Small Donations and Public Financing: The bill would authorize a pilot program in three states to encourage political donations and would create a federal tax credit for congressional campaign contributions by donors who give no more than $300 to any candidate or party. The measure would create a partial federal match for donations of $200 or less and would let candidates use their campaign accounts to pay for child care, mortgage payments, and health insurance, among other things.

Lobbying: Those hired to give lobbyists strategic advice would have to register as lobbyists even if doing no direct advocacy. The bill would create a unit in the Justice Department for investigating compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Tax Returns: Presidential candidates, the president, and vice president would have to disclose their tax returns and file additional financial disclosure reports when taking office. Inauguration committees would have to disclose unrelated expenditures.

Congressional Ethics: Members of Congress would be barred from using taxpayer funds to settle employment discrimination claim. They’d be barred by law from serving on corporate boards.

Federal Election Commission: The measure would reduce the number of commissioners to five from six. As many as two could be from each major party, with the fifth independent. The president would point a chairman to a 10-year term.

The package will be considered by three committees: House Administration, Judiciary, and Oversight and Reform.

Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the full House could consider the bill later this month. “That’s the time table that we are operating on,” he said.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said that he wouldn’t schedule a vote if, as is expected, the House passes the bill.

“That’s not going to go anywhere,” he said in December, calling the proposal a “blatantly unconstitutional attempt to have the government micromanage the way we handle elections.”

Freshman Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.)said some members of McConnell’s party are bound to favor parts of the package. “There’s going to be a lot that Republicans in the Senate want to get done, and we will have some leverage in that discussion,” he said in an interview.

“In my experience, every successful legislative battle begins in one chamber, and then you negotiate,” Malinowski said.

With assistance from Sarah Babbage, Naoreen Chowdhury, Danielle Parnass, Michael Smallberg, and Adam M. Taylor

To contact the reporter on this story: Katherine Scott in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Adam Schank at; Katherine Rizzo at