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Here’s why conservative groups are so desperate to kill Democrats’ sweeping H.R. 1 legislation

"At its core, it's about writing rules that benefit wealthy donors and hurt everyday Americans."

Rep. David Price (D-NC), surrounded by fellow Democrats, speaks during a news conference on H.R. 1, For the People Act, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Photo by Cheriss May) (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Rep. David Price (D-NC), surrounded by fellow Democrats, speaks during a news conference on H.R. 1, For the People Act, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Photo by Cheriss May) (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The House of Representatives is set to vote Friday on legislation that would enact a series of electoral reforms, including national automatic voter registration, making Election Day a federal holiday, and requiring dark money groups to disclose their donors. But the Republican-controlled Senate, with the backing of dozens of right-wing groups, looks almost certain to kill the bill.  

The “For the People Act” (or H.R. 1) is a sweeping set of transparency and anti-corruption measures that aims to transform the American political system “in the face of a torrent of special-interest dark money, partisan gerrymandering and devious vote-suppression schemes,” as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) wrote in the Washington Post last November.

“We’re in an agenda-setting moment right now,” Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, told ThinkProgress. “For the first time in decades, Congress — or at least one house — is making an overhaul of our legislative process a top Democratic priority.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), however, has already made it clear that he won’t even allow a vote on the legislation. On Tuesday, McConnell described the bill as a “radical, half-baked socialist proposal,” and nicknamed it the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

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McConnell’s opposition to H.R. 1 is bolstered by dozens of conservative groups, former Republican members of Congress, and some groups associated with the far-right, such as Eagle Forum, the American Family Association, and Tea Party Nation.

Several of the groups that signed an open letter, published by the Conservative Action Project, supporting Republican opposition to H.R. 1 are funded by individuals with extensive track records of voter suppression. Last year, for instance, signatory Fair Lines America donated $50,000 to Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which filed a lawsuit to keep the proposal for an independent redistricting commission off the ballot. Signatory American Encore is also funded by the Koch brothers, who have a long and storied history of funding voter suppression efforts.

The wide array of groups speaking out against H.R. 1, however, underscores the extent to which Republican establishment and the broader right-wing — including elements of the far right — are opposed to changing the status quo. Other signatories to the open letter include Phyllis Schlafly Eagles and branches of the Eagle Forum, hard-line religious right organizations created by the late Phyllis Schlafly. Even after her death in 2016, a conference sponsored in her name continues to attract far-right attendees from all over the world.

Other notable hard-line signatories include the American Family Association, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an anti-LGBTQ hate group, and Tea Party Nation, whose founder, Judson Phillips, previously claimed that voting should be restricted only to property owners.

Conservative groups insist that their opposition to H.R. 1 is well-founded. A letter sent by the conservative group FreedomWorks highlighted its issues with the legislation, including the fact that it would nationalize elections, force taxpayers to subsidize political literature, and expose the identities of Americans who contribute to nonprofits.

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But Weiner believes the opposition to the bill is less of a grassroots movement and more a reaction by the conservative establishment to the prospect of their grip on power being loosened.

“The conservative establishment inside the Beltway doesn’t like H.R. 1,” Weiner said. “The reason for that is probably because of a combination of factors, one may be self-interest when it comes to money in politics and campaign finance — a lot of these organizations are integral to the status quo.”

“But an even bigger factor than self-interest is a collective and misguided commitment to combating [efforts to improve the U.S. democratic system],” Weiner continued. “That is not just about money in politics but also about making excuses for voter suppression and defending partisan gerrymandering.”

Sam Berger, the vice president of the Democracy and Government Reform project at the Center for American Progress, agreed. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)

“The [Conservative Action Project letter] really rips the mask off the whole system of today’s conservative movement,” Berger said. “At its core, it’s about writing rules that benefit wealthy donors and hurt everyday Americans and the way they distract from that is division.”

“The extremist hate groups recognize the important role they play in the conservative ecosystem, and if that system is shook up it’s not clear where it leaves them,” Berger continued. “It’s shocking because it shows you that these hate groups feel their livelihood is intertwined with current corrupt system and the ability of a few to control politics.”

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The irony here, as Weiner notes, is that the overwhelming majority of conservative voters support motions to improve the U.S. political system. A November poll by End Citizens United found that 82 percent of all voters, and 84 percent of independents, wanted Congress to pass legislation curbing corruption. Trump himself ran partly on the promise that he would clean up Washington and, in his words, “drain the swamp.”

“The defining political challenge of our time is growing disconnect between the lives of those in D.C. and those of ordinary Americans and that’s not just a conservative problem,” Weiner said. “It’s more acute on the conservative side in this debate where they’re somewhat out of touch with their constituents because of wholesale opposition to this entire thing. There’s a lot in H.R. 1 their voters like and, given the opportunity, their voters would vote for.”

Weiner added that he was “flabbergasted” by McConnell’s wholesale dismissal of the legislation. “Everyone wants to make it easier for voters to vote,” he said. “The idea of calling it the ‘Democratic Politician Protection Act’ — I’m gobsmacked.”

This article was updated to correct information about Phyllis Schlafly and the organizations she founded.