House Democrats gained at least 40 seats in the November 2018 midterm elections, in part based on their promise to fight the culture of corruption that festered under the GOP’s control. As they usher in the 116th Congress on Thursday, the new House Majority plans to hit the ground running with two packages to actually drain the swamp and take on the for-profit Trump administration. But with Republicans still controlling the Senate, one of those packages is likely going to run into the massive anti-reform roadblock that is Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
As promised, incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her new majority plan to kick off the new Congress with a major sweeping anti-corruption bill — designated as H.R. 1 — and a series of House rule changes (H. Res. 6) that will address weaknesses in the House’s own operating policies.
Alex Tausanovitch, associate director of the democracy and government reform team at the Center for American Progress, called the rules changes a “down-payment on their efforts to fight corruption” that “shows they’re serious about taking on this culture of corruption we’ve seen proliferate in the past few years.” [ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund].
Those changes include a prohibition on members of Congress — like indicted New York Rep. Chris Collins (R) — serving on corporate boards, mandatory annual ethics training for all members, an expanded ban on sexual relationships between members and staffers, a new ombudsman for whistleblowers, and a formal ban on non-disclosure agreements (which have been used to conceal sexual harassment).
While the changes are not “earth-shattering,” Tausanovitch says, collectively they are meaningful and positive. “They’re not going to be game-changing by themselves, but show a commitment by this new leadership,” he said. Passing all of these rule changes will require a simple majority in the House, meaning Democrats can make these changes right away.
More significant, he said, is the broader package of reforms in H.R. 1, which was announced by Pelosi and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) late last year. Its provisions would end undisclosed “dark money” in political elections; tighten lobbyist registration loopholes; reform campaign-finance law to incentivize small political donations; and enact voting-rights reforms including a ban on partisan gerrymandering and a restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
“H.R. 1 will be a historic change. It signifies a major shift from previous congresses which have done nothing to address the culture of corruption in Washington,” Tausanovitch said.
But unlike the rules changes, H.R. 1 would need to be approved by both the House and Senate and signed by the president. And while Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) plans to introduce similar legislation in the upper chamber, there is virtually zero chance it will come up for a vote as long as McConnell is running the Senate.
Why? McConnell has made fighting against campaign finance reform his life’s work. He sued to try to stop the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as McCain-Feingold), repeatedly filibustered dark-money disclosure, and has opposed campaign finance restrictions as “basically repeal[ing] the First Amendment.” As Senate majority leader, he will have the power to determine what legislation come to the floor, making H.R. 1 likely dead on arrival.
The package will also include a requirement that all presidential nominees release 10 years worth of tax returns — something unlikely to go over well with Trump or the Senate Republicans who have diligently shielded him from oversight for the past two years.
With the rules changes, the House Democrats may be able to take a bite of out corruption. But it will likely require a different Senate majority to bring real reform.