Lobbyists are already mounting an opposition strategy to Democrats’ anti-corruption bill
Ella Nilsen • Jan 29, 2019
As House Democrats’ sweeping anti-corruption bill had its first hearing Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee, a different meeting about the bill was taking place on K Street.
The National Association of Business Political Action Committees and its members met at the law offices of their legal counsel Wiley Rein on Tuesday to discuss the bill’s impact. The group is calling the anti-corruption bill, commonly known on the Hill as HR 1, “potentially onerous legislation,” and told its members to “immediately begin engaging on this topic with your donors, senior executives and Hill allies.” (Vox attempted to attend the lunch meeting, but our registration was rescinded).
This isn’t the only group concerned about Democrats making HR 1 their first priority in the new Congress. The wide-ranging bill would require Super PACs to make their donors public, enact lobbying registration requirements with more oversight of foreign agents, set up nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end partisan gerrymandering, and create national automatic voter registration, among other actions.
The Conservative Action Project released a memo on Monday calling the bill “the ultimate fantasy of the left,” which was signed by Republican figures including former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese III, and former House Majority Leader Tom Delay. (Delay resigned from Congress in 2006 after questions about his ties to infamous DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and was convicted of campaign money laundering in 2010.)
Conservative and libertarian group FreedomWorks has been circulating a form letter to members for the past two weeks, calling HR 1 a “dangerous bill” and saying it would restrict free speech and open up the country to one-party rule by Democrats.
Washington’s lobbyist and influence industries seem nervous, but they can rest easy for at least two more years; there’s absolutely no chance that HR 1 will become law under the current Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell outlined his staunch opposition to the bill in detail in a Washington Post op-ed a few weeks ago — all but guaranteeing it won’t see the light of day in the Senate.
But perhaps anticipating an era similar to the post-Watergate reforms, pro-business and lobbying organizations are starting to worry.
“No matter when this kind of bill would be put on the calendar, we’re going to oppose it, based on what it is,” FreedomWorks press secretary Peter Vicenzi told Vox.
Why lobbyists are sounding the alarm on HR 1
The most common attack on HR 1 is that its transparency requirements for donors to Super PACs and “dark money” organizations are a blow to constitutionally protected free speech. Groups like the Conservative Action Project say the bill would upend free speech by making public which donors are giving to PACs. The 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United in effect gave corporations the same powers as citizens in political spending.
The aim of HR 1 is to cut down on the excess of money influencing who gets elected and how policy is made in Washington, DC, but these groups often frame their arguments by saying the bill will unjustly hurt small donors as well.
“This hurts Americans by revealing their names when they might want privacy,” Vicenzi said. “This isn’t even for big donors, this hurts the little guy.”
Of course, the amount of money big donors are spending on Super PACs dwarfs that of individual small donors. The top 10 donors to super PACs in 2018 were millionaires and billionaires (a mix of Democrats and Republicans) — together, they account for more than $400 million donated to super PACs in 2018 alone, according to OpenSecrets data.
The 2018 midterms cycle was the most expensive midterm election in history and became the second-most expensive cycle ever when it came to outside spending, considering both midterm and presidential elections, per an OpenSecrets analysis.
Washington’s influence industry has other problems with HR 1. Jan Baran, the attorney who is providing guidance to NABPAC on the legislation, outlined concerns that the provisions in the bill meant to restrict foreign nationals from influencing American elections would also restrict the ability for American corporations who may have a foreign national as an executive or a shareholder to keep their PACs or donate to them.
“If a corporation with even one foreign national executive, director, or shareholder with voting shares is considered a ‘foreign national’ under HR 1, then the corporation would be subject to the same prohibitions,” Baran wrote in a presentation to NABPAC that was shared with Vox. (Baran was involved in the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, he wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the US Chamber of Commerce that was cited in the court’s decision.)
Conservative groups and politicians, including McConnell, have also outlined concerns about HR 1’s steps to eliminate partisan gerrymandering by incentivizing states to set up nonpartisan redistricting commissions. They also object to its proposed restructuring of the Federal Elections Commission to seat five commissioners instead of six. Democrats say this will reduce gridlock on the commission (something that former FEC commissioners of both parties have complained has paralyzed the body from doing its job), but conservative groups say it will make it more partisan.
“From the First Amendment to your ballot box, Democrats want to rewrite the rules to favor themselves and their friends,” McConnell wrote in his op-ed. “Upending the FEC, squeezing taxpayers, attacking privacy and jeopardizing our elections are a price they’ll happily pay for this partisan power grab.”
Combined with the fact that more politicians coming to Washington and running for president are taking a no-corporate PAC pledge, Democrats see signs the influence industry is scared they are serious about real reforms.
“I think [McConnell] and others perceive that if we get this passed in the House and make this strong declaration to the public ... that begins to create momentum and pressure on him,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), the main sponsor of HR 1.
You can read the full article by Ella Nilsen here.
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