House Democrats pass plan to overhaul ethics rules, expand voting rights and target Trump tax returns
The House of Representatives on Friday passed a key priority of the new Democratic majority: A sweeping legislative proposal that Democrats call HR 1 that seeks to enact wide-ranging ethics reform, expand voting rights and mandate the disclosure of presidential tax returns.
The vote was 234 to 193 and the measure passed along party lines.
Congressional Republicans have criticized the legislation as an attempted power grab by Democrats, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear it won't be taken up in the Senate. The White House has also issued a veto threat on the measure.
But the legislation was still a key campaign promise for Democrats and a way to send a message to voters about the kind of government reforms the party would pursue if it wins back the Senate and the presidency.
Efforts by House Democrats to focus attention on HR 1 were largely overshadowed this week by an internal Democratic debate over how to respond to controversy surrounding freshmen Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has ignited criticism within the party over comments related to Israel.
The House passed a resolution on Thursday condemning both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim discrimination as well as other forms of hate and intolerance.
By Friday, however, Democrats had largely succeeded in re-focusing attention on HR 1, a massive legislative package that runs hundreds of pages in length. It reads like a list of liberal priorities on fighting government corruption, reforming campaign finance and making it easier for people to vote. And House Democrats have described the measure as proof that the party is working to restore the American public's faith in democracy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to Republicans calling HR 1 a power grab during a news conference on Friday, saying "Yes, it is a power grab—a power grab on behalf of the people." Pelosi briefly stood next to Omar during the news conference. They greeted each other, as they both held tiny American flags.
Ethics and campaign finance reform
The legislative package calls for far-reaching ethics and government changes that would impact Congress, the President and even the Supreme Court.
HR 1 would ban congressional lawmakers from sitting on corporate boards. It would also stop lawmakers from using taxpayer money to reach settlements in employment discrimination cases stemming from their own actions.
It would also institute an ethics code for the US Supreme Court that would apply to high court justices.
The bill is aimed at lessening the influence of big money in politics and it takes aim at Citizens United, the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision, by calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the high court ruling that opened the door to unlimited spending by corporations and unions to influence elections.
While Republicans argue the bill is overreaching and limits free political speech, Democrats simply point to a key campaign pledge made by President Donald Trump to "drain the swamp."
"I do not know how you could have the hypocrisy and the gall to support a presidential campaign that calls for the swamp to be drained and then say this is dead on arrival," said Democratic Rep. Max Rose of New York.
Presidential tax returns
The legislation would require US presidents, vice presidents and presidential nominees to disclose their tax returns. Specifically, it requires the release of 10 years of personal and business tax returns -- a provision that would apply to the current President.
Trump broke with past precedent by refusing to release his tax returns while running for office.
The tax section of the bill underwent changes in the week before the vote with liberals fighting to also include a measure that would require candidates to disclose business tax returns as well, a nod to Democratic questions about Trump's own finances and whether they influence decisions he's making in office.
The question of business tax disclosures has become a hot button issue on the House Ways and Means Committee where Chairman Richard Neal is expected to formally request the President's tax returns in upcoming weeks.
It's unclear what precisely Neal would request using an arcane IRS code that Democrats believe gives the chairman the ability to request Trump's personal tax information, but the drafting of HR 1 has largely been seen as a reflection of what the House Ways and Means committee's priorities could be.
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee have been pushing Neal to make Trump's business returns a target of his inquiry in addition to pushing for them to be included in HR 1, arguing that the business returns could help other congressional committees with their own investigations.
Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, told CNN that he believes Neal should request the business returns.
"I think if you're going to do this, you have to do it right, it should be business returns and it should be of course personal returns," he said.
Voting rights and elections
HR 1 also seeks to advance a number of long-standing liberal agenda items with respect to voting and elections, including provisions that Democrats say will make it easier to vote and protect voting rights.
The legislation requires states to create and operate a system for automatic voter registration for federal elections via an opt-out system. It would restore the right to vote in federal elections to former felons who have served out their sentences.
Democrats also say they want to give voters more opportunities to vote, and the bill requires 15 days of early voting in states for federal elections.
Republicans criticize legislation as a power grab
Republicans have criticized the bill as overreach regarding states' rights to manage elections and a major attempt to limit free speech in political and advocacy campaigns by trying to reduce spending.
This was a key point made by McConnell in a news conference Wednesday designed to explicitly attack the bill, which he called a "terrible proposal" that won't be brought up in the Senate.
It's rare for McConnell to hold news conferences outside his regular weekly conference -- particularly on a bill that he's not expected to bring up -- but HR1 touches on issues, namely campaign finance reform, that have been a key topic of his throughout his career.
House GOP whip Steve Scalise framed the issue during the same news conference by calling it "a choice between freedom and socialism" and arguing the legislation would infringe on American's First Amendment rights.
Pressed on why he's letting the Green New Deal get a vote -- which he also opposes -- and not HR 1, McConnell quipped to reporters Wednesday: "Because I get to decide what we vote on."