House Readies Bill Aimed at Stopping Foreign Election Interference

People cast their ballots ahead of the Nov. 6 general election at Jim Miller Park in Marietta, Ga., on Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – House lawmakers are pushing for the passage of a third bill to protect the integrity of U.S. elections, with the latest piece of legislation aimed at closing loopholes that allow foreign nationals to spend money on American political campaigns.

The Committee on House Administration met Wednesday to discuss the Stopping Harmful Interference in Elections for a Lasting Democracy, or SHIELD, Act.

Sponsored by California Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, it proposes increasing transparency for political campaigns, parties and political action committees by requiring them to report any attempt by a foreign government or individual to influence an election to the Federal Election Commission and the FBI. The bill also requires U.S. campaigns to establish standards for compliance.

The House of Representatives has already passed two pieces of legislation to protect U.S. elections. The first, H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, passed in the House 234-193 in March.

Among its provisions, H.R. 1 includes crackdowns on gerrymandering and lobbying while promoting public campaign financing. It establishes a system for congressional campaigns in which the federal government would match 6-to-1 any contribution of $200 or less to candidates who meet certain conditions.

This aspect was originally proposed as being taxpayer funded, but when Republicans balked House lawmakers amended it so the fund would be paid through the addition of a 2.75% fee on criminal or civil fines or settlements with corporations caught committing wrongdoing.

The House also passed the Securing America’s Federal Elections, or SAFE, Act in June by a vote of 225-184. The bill sets cybersecurity standards for election infrastructure and also provided states with the resources to update paperless systems.

Both bills were flatly rejected by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and remain in limbo.

“The committee and House have acted twice to shore up confidence in elections…we should all be able to agree we need to protect our democracy and with a sense of urgency. This shouldn’t been a partisan opinion,” Lofgren said at Wednesday’s hearing.

According to a July Quinnipiac poll, 71% of those surveyed said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” that a foreign government may interfere in the 2020 election. The same poll also revealed that 78% of voters feel it is “never acceptable” for a campaign to obtain information on a political opponent from a hostile foreign power.

President Donald Trump is now squarely in the impeachment inquiry spotlight and given the circumstances – he pressured a foreign president to dig up dirt on a political opponent or face a freeze in military aid – House Democrats argued the time to pass the SHIELD Act is now.

In addition to closing spending loopholes and mandating that campaigns alert the FEC or FBI, the bill requires the FEC to audit campaigns and report recommendations to Congress after each election cycle.

It also restricts campaigns from sharing non-public campaign material like internal opposition research with foreign nationals, those under sanctions or members of an oligarchy.

Representative Rodney Davis, R-Ill., spoke out Wednesday against some aspects of the bill, in particular one section that suggests nothing in the bill should be construed to “impede legitimate journalistic activities.”

The word “legitimate” could easily become a hornet’s nest, he said.

“Each side of the media thinks it is reporting legitimate news,” Davis said before suggesting the verbiage be broad or abolished altogether.

Lofgren offered a preview of the battle to come when the bill goes to the House floor for a vote next week.

“The language should remain because it is modeled after the FEC’s own requirements when applying press exemptions ‘that consider whether an outlet or journalist is acting in their legitimate function,’” Lofgren said, quoting from a 2016 FEC advisory opinion that had unanimous approval from all Republican members of the board.

She continued, “Let’s say you have oligarch number one that comes to your campaign. You have a duty to report. But if it’s a legitimate reporter as defined by the legitimate press functions and the whole existing body of law, the requirement to report to the FEC or FBI would not exist. It’s a press inquiry, not foreign interference.”

Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., was supportive but skeptical, expressing curiosity over how news organizations that receive government funding, like the BBC, would be treated under the SHIELD Act.

Amendments will be considered before a final vote, but Lofgren left her colleagues with a warning as the hearing closed.

“When Citizens United was adopted by the Supreme Court, one of the things it said in making its ruling was that the answer to whatever harm would be done by money in the political arena would be disclosure. The First Amendment permits political speech and disclosure gives shareholders a chance to react in the proper way,” she said. “We need complete disclosure now so people know what they are getting. We must prohibit foreign enemies of the United States, really, from trying to disrupt our democracy.”

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