New York Times: First Up if Democrats Win: Campaign and Ethics Changes, Infrastructure and Drug Prices

November 3, 2018
By: Nicholas Fandos

October 31, 2018

WASHINGTON — Democrats would use their first month in the House majority to advance sweeping changes to future campaign and ethics laws, requiring the disclosure of shadowy political donors, outlawing the gerrymandering of congressional districts and restoring key enforcement provisions to the Voting Rights Act, top Democratic leaders said on Tuesday.

They would then turn to infrastructure investment and the climbing costs of prescription drugs, answering voter demands and challenging President Trump’s willingness to work on shared policy priorities with a party he has vilified. The idea, said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, is to show voters that Democrats are a governing party, not the leftist mob that Mr. Trump describes — and to extend an arm of cooperation to the president after an electoral rebuke.

“This is going to be a bitter pill for them all to swallow when they see the election results, if they turn out as we expect,” Ms. Pelosi said in an extended interview on Tuesday, predicting a Democratic wave. She added of the prospect Mr. Trump would collaborate, “I don’t think he himself knows what he is going to do.”

As Mr. Trump spends the final week of a scorched-earth midterm campaign rallying his base around hot-button immigration issues and depicting Democrats as a security threat, Ms. Pelosi and her deputies sought to project a more modest and politically popular agenda on issues ranging from health care to criminal justice changes. They said they would work to improve the Affordable Care Act, for example, rather than rushing to replace it with a single-payer health care plan.

And even as they ready an onslaught of investigations into alleged malfeasance by the president and his administration, they said common ground could be found with Mr. Trump.

“We’re still going to have Donald Trump as president, so obviously that’s going to limit to an extent what we can accomplish in the short term,” Representative Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who would be in line to chair the Rules Committee, said in an interview. “But one thing we can accomplish is we can run the place like professionals and restore some integrity to the institution.”

Democrats, of course, may fall short of a majority on Tuesday, and if they do net the 23 seats they need, there is no guarantee Mr. Trump, or Republicans who are expected to maintain control of the Senate, will cooperate. Mr. Trump has shown an interest in working with Democrats in the past, on issues like gun control and immigration, only to backtrack, and he could emerge from Election Day determined to shun Democrats.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, would have his own motivations to bypass or block House proposals as he blockaded legislation pushed by President Barack Obama. Then there is the challenge of reining in the most energized liberal lawmakers for whom anything short of a presidential impeachment would be a compromise too far.

But after eight years in the minority, most Democrats believe they will need to do more than embarrass the White House with subpoenas and investigative hearings if they want to be more than a one-term majority and reclaim the presidency in 2020. Ms. Pelosi made clear her party would only bend so far. Democrats are not “going to lowest common denominator to get a presidential signature,” she said.

Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Ms. Pelosi’s longtime No. 2, said Mr. Trump’s stances would speak for themselves to 2020 voters. “The best politics for us is trying to work toward adopting the best policy for the American people,” he added.

As they talked up possible bipartisan initiatives, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Hoyer said that Democrats would push through — on party line votes if necessary — other more liberal agenda items they say enjoy broad public support but have been stymied for years by Republican majorities. They include gun safety legislation, a bill to give permanent legal status and a path to citizenship to young, undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, and the Equality Act, which would amend longstanding civil rights laws to extend legal protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ms. Pelosi said for the first time that she would urge her caucus to revive a select committee focused on climate change similar to the one that Democrats funded from 2007 to early 2011 to “prepare the way with evidence” for energy conservation and other climate change mitigation legislation. Republicans defunded the panel when they took the majority, but Ms. Pelosi said it was clearly still needed to educate the public about the impact of more frequent extreme weather events.

“The template for 2020 is getting built in the House,” Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, a progressive in line to chair the Natural Resources Committee, said summing up another Democratic view.

Democrats have also prepared detailed, more liberal approaches for a $1 trillion infrastructure package and how to slow the increases in prescription drug costs, but indicated that they would steer proposals through the regular committee process in an effort to try to build a consensus with Republicans first. Mr. Hoyer said Democrats and Republicans would disagree over how to fund infrastructure spending, but they could bridge the gap with Mr. Trump’s help.

“His objectives are objectives that we share,” he said. “If he really means that, then there is an opening for us to work together.”

At least in theory, Democrats view election and ethics reform as another issue of potential collaboration. But their legislative package of more than a dozen bills, overseen by Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, looks more like a retort to Mr. Trump’s popular campaign claims that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington — a difference Democrats have weaponized on the campaign trail.

In an echo of actions they took in 2007, the last time they assumed House control, Democrats plan to use a package of rules governing the chamber prepared by Mr. McGovern to take unilateral steps that they say will tighten ethical standards, including in a nod to an ongoing ethics scandal roiling Republicans, a ban on House members sitting on corporate boards.

Together, Ms. Pelosi said, putting those efforts first would “caffeinate” the Democrats’ agenda, even if Republicans in the Senate do not take up the legislation.

“When people know the priority that we are giving to the integrity and government piece, it increases the confidence they have that we can do what we said,” Ms. Pelosi said.

Chief among the legislation’s provisions would be a measure by Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama that would amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to comply with a 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder that gutted the bill’s key enforcement provision. In issuing its 5-4 decision, the court urged Congress to replace the scheme under which the federal government had overseen changes to election laws in states with a history of voting rights abuses.

Republicans in control of Congress at the time took a pass, and Democrats believe Ms. Sewell’s bill could help counteract a new wave of election laws across the South that have limited access to the polls.

Another measure, written by Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, would require political nonprofit 501(c)(4)s to disclose the identity of most of their donors for the first time. Democrats would like to go further, passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and restore to Congress the power to limit money in politics, but those political prospects appear slim.

Yet another provision, written by Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, would require all states to establish independent commissions to draw congressional districts. Several states already employ such bodies, but gerrymandering of political boundaries is the norm in most states, allowing the party in control of state government to create the most favorable jurisdictions for its congressional elections every decade, distorting the will of voters, Democrats argue.

Also included are a series of bills tightening restrictions on federal lobbyists, beefing up the executive branch’s Office of Government Ethics, which clashed with Mr. Trump early in his presidency, and requiring the president and vice president to divest any business holdings to prevent a possible conflict of interest.