reprinted from The Atlantic, SEPTEMBER 17, 2020
By Elaine Godfrey
If democrats manage to hold the House of Representatives and win back the Senate and the White House in November, the party will have full control of the federal government for the first time in 11 years. Police reform, climate change, and health care are all on their agenda. But before newly empowered Democrats get to any of that, they will very likely pass a relief package to address the coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic crisis. Then, they will aim to fundamentally change how voting and government work in the United States by expanding voting rights, reducing the influence of money in politics, strengthening ethics rules, and maybe even ending the Senate filibuster—reforms they hope will make America’s democracy work better and the rest of their agenda easier to carry out.
“If there is any political capital to be spent, the concerns over democracy reform take a front seat to everything in the agenda,” a senior aide to a progressive senator told me (the aide requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record). It “would mean so much just in terms of building long-term power,” a senior aide to a progressive House Democrat added.
By starting with these reforms, Democrats are taking a risk: They’ll likely have only a short window of time in the majority to accomplish their most pressing agenda items. Prioritizing one item could mean sacrificing another—and failing to deliver on key issues.
But the Democratic lawmakers, staffers, and activists that I spoke with view government and voting reform as a kind of precursor to accomplishing any of their other policy goals. “The first attention will be to the economic implosion, but there are a group of [other] issues on people’s minds,” Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon told me. “We are at that moment where we have to succeed now in restoring the integrity of the American vision.” Democrats have given these process changes, which they call “democracy reform,” top billing on their legislative docket before.
The For the People Act, more commonly known as H.R. 1, was the first piece of legislation the Democratic-controlled House passed in 2019. It contained a grab bag of reforms: establishing automatic voter registration for all Americans, making Election Day a national holiday, ending partisan gerrymandering, requiring presidents to disclose their tax returns, and creating a public-financing system for federal campaigns. These reforms would make it easier for most Americans to vote. They’d also, Democrats hope, make it easier for Democrats to win elections
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