Debate Over Election Reform Bill Gets Heated in House

WASHINGTON (CN) – Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised their voices Wednesday over whether a sweeping election reform bill proposed by Democrats would drain or fill the Washington swamp.

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The wide-ranging anti-corruption bill, House Resolution 1, includes a provision that would increase transparency in campaign finance by requiring candidates to report where their campaign money comes from. That measure was the focus of committee members from both parties during the nearly four-hour hearing in the House Oversight Committee .

Bradley Smith, an expert witness and chairman of the Institute for Free Speech, repeatedly told committee members that the bill would have a “chilling effect” on citizens’ desire to engage in elections through avenues like campaign donations.

“You run the risk of regulations swallowing up the entire discourse in which the public engages,” Smith said.

During cross-examination, Democrat Representative Eleanor Norton from the District of Columbia grilled Smith on how increased transparency could possibly hurt the election process.

“Let it all hang out and let everyone make their own judgment,” she said.

Statements from Representative Clay Higgins, R-La., drew some snickers from the crowd when he asserted that the bill – criticized by some right-wing lawmakers as “outrageous” and radical – “resembles Russian government policy.”

While Higgins agreed with Smith that the bill could hold some weight if it were to be split into its component parts, he argued with his voice raised that the “expiration date will come” on the First Amendment if HR 1 passes.

Some Republicans called the bill a sour deal for taxpayers, referencing a provision that allows the government to match small campaign donations six times over, with a cap of $200 per match-eligible donation. The aim of that measure is to allow ordinary Americans to compete with wealthy donors.

Turning his scrutiny to witness Rudy Mehrbani of the Brennan Center for Justice, Representative Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said he finds it troubling that taxpayer dollars could be used to re-elect partisan politicians.  

“I don’t see any of my constituents in the audience here. I can’t imagine that they would be happy with taxpayer dollars being used to re-elect the Freedom Caucus chairman,” he said to Mehrbani, who stood by his support of the matching scheme. “Do you not see a problem when we use taxpayer dollars to re-elect individual members of Congress?”

“Sir, campaigns need to be funded from somewhere –” Mehrbani began, before he was interrupted by Meadows.

“I agree, but not my taxpayer dollars should be going to it, sir,” Meadows said.

Clapping back at GOP criticism of HR 1 being a Democratic “power grab,” Representative Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said her party is guilty as charged.

“HR 1 has been described as a wish list by Democrats. Well, you got us there – a wish list for inclusive, expanded democracy,” she said.

The bill covers a wide swath of measures including provisions to make voter registration easier, prevent gerrymandering and more strictly regulate the role of money in politics. It would create a national Election Day holiday, staff up poll places, allow ex-felons to vote and end voter roll purges.

Democrats wouldn’t need to grab power back, Pressley said, if the American systems of government weren’t working to take voting rights away.

Her argument echoed sentiments by Democratic Chairman Elijah Cummings from Maryland, who said free and fair elections, especially for minority voters, are the “essence” of democracy.

“Voting is crucial, and I don’t give a damn how you look at it,” Cummings said, voice booming. “There are efforts to stop people from voting. That’s not right.”

Wednesday’s hearing in the House Oversight Committee follows another last week in the House Judiciary Committee.

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