Time for Congress to Stand Up for Democracy

The much-needed For the People Act is a vital step in helping to restore a government that represents the will of the American people.
Voters casting ballots during the early voting period in Atlanta for the gubernatorial election between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp
Credit: Jessica McGowan/Getty

The much-needed For the People Act is a vital step in helping to restore a government that represents the will of the American people.

As early as Thursday, the U.S House of Representatives is scheduled to take one of its most important actions of the year, voting on a bill meant to confront a perilous and mounting set of threats to the quality of American democracy.

With the 235 House Democrats all on board, the For the People Act of 2019 appears certain to pass in that chamber. It faces hard sledding, at best, in the Senate. 

This bill, though, deserves the support of every member of both houses of Congress. The stakes are that high and the principles that clear. The act would help us to better assess candidates’ fitness to hold office. It would help prevent corporate dollars from drowning out the voice of the people. And it would protect our fundamental right to vote. If anyone, from either party, can’t stand up to defend all that, what on earth are they doing in Congress?

Our government is set up to carry out the will of the people. That’s not happening in many areas, including our responsibility to protect the environment. Nine in ten Americans, for example, support the environmental safeguards we have in place, and two-thirds want them strengthened. Six in ten Americans oppose offshore drilling in Atlantic and Pacific waters, or the expansion of drilling off the coast of Alaska. And nearly seven in ten Americans—69 percent—want government action to fight the rising costs and growing dangers of climate change.

And yet the Trump administration, aided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is weakening environmental protections, trying to expose more ocean waters to the risks of another BP-style disaster, rolling back climate progress every way it can, and denying the basic science behind the threat of looming climate catastrophe.

Why is our government so wildly out of step with the will of the people?

One reason is massive political funding from fossil fuel companies and other polluting industries, much of it dark money hidden from public view. Another is the disenfranchisement of low-income communities, people of color, and others who tend to suffer the worst from environmental harm and whose votes are too often suppressed. Yet another reason is the misuse of former corporate lobbyists to run the very agencies they once lobbied against. 

No single law can fix this welter of dysfunction. The For the People Act, though, is a needed step in the right direction. It would strengthen our democracy. And it deserves the support of everyone who believes in government by the consent of the governed.

In Donald Trump, the country elected a president who proudly boasted of paying little or no taxes, then refused to make public his tax returns. For two generations, presidential candidates have willingly made these documents public, and for good reason. The American people have every right to know how a candidate for the highest office in the land approaches a basic duty of citizenship: chipping in their fair share to fund the government’s work that advances the common interests, aspirations, and values we share. 

The For the People Act honors that right, with a simple requirement that any candidate for president or vice president make 10 years of tax returns available for public review. That way, no candidate could follow Trump’s lead and flout our right to know the truth about someone who seeks to lead this country.

In recent years, voter frustration has grown over the ability of corporations with near-limitless resources to seize control of the agenda in Washington by injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns, often under the cloak of anonymity. When that kind of money is used to buy political influence, the American people have the right to know whose interests are being served. We have the right to know who’s writing the checks. The For the People Act would defend that right. 

It would require public disclosure of the names of those who contribute to the large political action committees, or super PACs, that funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into campaigns each election cycle. Currently, that information can be kept from the public, opening the door to secret influence with the potential to corrupt our politics and undercut American interests. That is anathema to government by the people.

Nothing in this bill would limit contributions, nor restrict anyone’s ability to express their views. It would simply ensure that voters be able to understand where the money is coming from and who is benefiting from the influence it buys.

The act would strike another blow for citizen voice by creating a source of matching funds for small donations to political campaigns. That won’t fully even the score between large corporate spending and the family that has to think about whether to pony up $25 to support their favored candidate. It would be an important step, though, in leveling the playing field.

None of this much matters unless we’re able to fully exercise the most basic right of American citizenship, the right to cast our votes to hold our leaders to account for what they do, or fail to do, on our behalf. And yet, in state after state, we’ve seen that right compromised or violated outright by nefarious provisions aimed at throttling the turnout of certain groups of voters in an effort to influence elections.

The For the People Act would put an end to the kind of purging of voter polls that unconscionably denied scores of thousands of predominantly African American citizens the right to vote in Georgia’s gubernatorial elections last fall. It would enable citizens to register to vote online, just like we can do to pay our taxes, take out a home mortgage, or any other of scores of important matters that require communications that are safe and secure. 

The act would make Election Day a federal holiday, giving a fair shot at getting to the polls for millions of workers whose schedules now make that hard. It would require paper ballots to back up computer voting, providing the permanent trail we need to verify contested results and to help prevent hackers, foreign or domestic, from throwing an election.

And the act would address one of the most pernicious assaults of citizen voice in our country today, the intentional gerrymandering of congressional districts that distorts political representation by stacking the deck in favor of one party over another in a way that marginalizes the voices of tens of millions of our people. This act would create an independent federal commission to oversee the drawing of congressional district boundaries so they would reflect population patterns, not political preferences, in a way that helps to ensure that our votes, not the manipulation of district lines, determine the outcome of congressional elections.

The For the People Act is an important measure. It contains vital first steps in helping to restore to the American people our constitutional rights to know the truth about those who aspire to high office, to raise our voice and express our views, and to hold our leaders to account. Every member of Congress should support this legislation and the goals that it embodies.