Although H.R. 1 has been around for a couple of years—it was the first thing Democrats introduced in 2019, when they took over the House—it uses the same strategy that the party adopted for COVID-19 relief and infrastructure: Throw as much stuff as possible in and try to ram it through. A Democratic aide told Vox’s Andrew Prokop that about 60 separate bills were rolled together to make this bill. That worked with the relief package, but it’s creating complications for H.R. 1.
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Many Democrats support certain versions of campaign-finance reform, for example. But some of them, such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are uncomfortable with the federal government meddling with state power over election administration (though it’s been done plenty in the past). Black Democrats are eager to roll back changes such as Georgia’s new law, which Senator Raphael Warnock has branded “Jim Crow in new clothes,” but The New York Times reports that some of them are also wary of independent commissions handling redistricting, a central idea of the bill but one that might carve up majority-minority districts, especially in the South.
All of the proposals are plausible reforms to improve democracy, though many Republicans disagree with these ideas. The various elements of the bill aren’t really at odds with one another, even if their supporters are. But they represent different theories about the most perilous threat to Democrats and to their voters.
Movements to reform campaign finance have been around since Mark Hanna pioneered the big-money campaign in 1896. Many have been bipartisan, culminating in the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. But in the 21st century, campaign-finance reform has largely been a progressive priority. Left-of-center concerns grew especially sharp after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, and for a time, many Democrats viewed that decision as the most pressing matter in politics. Unrestrained corporate donations would warp democracy, they warned, and also swamp Democratic candidates with donations to GOP candidates.
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In 2016, Hillary Clinton placed that worry at the center of her presidential campaign. “We need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights, not restrict them,” she said in her nomination-acceptance speech. “And we'll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United!” (This was somewhat personal for Clinton—the Supreme Court case centered on a film attacking her—though she also enjoyed the support of super PACs that the decision had enabled during the campaign.)
Of course, Clinton did not move to overturn the decision, because she did not win. But her loss and the 2016 election were the beginning of the eclipse of campaign-finance reform as a central issue for Democrats. The rise of the fundraising platform ActBlue, and especially the astonishing small-dollar success of Senator Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign, showed that Democrats could compete by amassing small donations. Meanwhile, pro-Clinton spending (both by her campaign and by outside groups) far outpaced pro-Trump spending. In 2020, the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, barely mentioned Citizens United during his campaign.