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.
The Democrats’ plan is informed by experience. The last time Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, they—under the leadership of President Barack Obama—attempted, at least at first, to foster a good working relationship with Republicans. Yet, after weeks of negotiations, the 2009 stimulus bill received only three GOP votes in the Senate. Not a single Republican voted to pass the Affordable Care Act, after a year of negotiations and floor debate—despite the fact that the legislation was modeled, in part, on a Republican template, and GOP amendments had been accepted to the bill. Obama had hoped to reach a “grand bargain” with Republicans but instead became acquainted with what his aides came to call “the party of no.” Many Democrats believe those times offer a lesson: They need to fix the structural issues that have long given Republicans political power disproportionate to the number of votes the party wins.
Republicans, naturally, are deeply resistant to many of the proposals included in H.R. 1. They argue that the provisions amount to extreme government overreach, and that expanding voting access through mechanisms such as automatic registration will open America’s elections system up to voter fraud. Not a single Republican voted to support H.R. 1 in the House last year, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked it from coming to a vote on the Senate floor. “They’re trying to clothe this power grab with cliches about ‘restoring democracy’ … but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party,” he wrote in a Washington Post column.
With McConnell and House Republicans opposed to most of their priorities, Democrats will have to structure their agenda carefully—and move quickly. Some Democrats would prefer to take advantage of the increased appetite for health-care reform to pass Medicare for All or a public option in the first weeks of a Joe Biden presidency. Others see climate-change legislation as the first priority. But voting-rights expansion and campaign-finance reforms would likely be simpler and faster to pass, given that the framework already exists in H.R. 1, the Democrats I spoke with said. And everyone agreed that both health care and climate change could be addressed—at least to some extent—in an initial coronavirus-response package; Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic-recovery proposal already promises investment in clean energy sources.
By January 2021, America will likely still be experiencing the twin public-health and economic crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, and voters will likely have gone through a drawn-out and chaotic November election. Appetite for political reform will be high, Democrats argue. “Over four years, we’ve learned of weaknesses in our democracy,” Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based liberal think tank, told me. “To move a progressive agenda, we need to restore faith in government.”
Another reason that many Democrats would like to prioritize H.R. 1: It’s one of the few issues that unites nearly all factions of the party, so it’s politically feasible. Every single House Democrat voted in favor of the bill. “There’s gonna be an element of, how can you show progressives that you’re in it to win it and willing to go big? There are some things on democracy reform that will really send that message and really do that,” said one aide to a centrist senator, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Leadership knows that is an issue that would make the left very happy and allow the moderates to deliver on what they’ve promised,” Lanae Erickson, a senior president at the think-tank Third Way, told me.
Democrats believe their reform agenda could be a political winner. “Ending the culture of corruption in Washington” was the top issue for 75 percent of voters in swing districts in 2018, according to a poll from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. That year, 72 percent of candidates on the House Democrats’ list of highly competitive races rejected donations from corporate political action committees, a pledge that became a litmus test during the campaign. That was up from just 6 percent in 2016, according to End Citizens United, a political action committee working to pass campaign-finance reform.
Before they can pass their “democracy reform,” though, Democrats have to decide exactly what that entails. Most progressives interpret the phrase to include not only expanding voting rights, but also establishing D.C. statehood and abolishing the Electoral College, two proposals that are still controversial among rank-and-file members. Public support for both ideas is mixed: More than 60 percent of U.S. adults oppose D.C. statehood, according to a recent Gallup poll, while a majority of Americans support amending the Constitution so the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote wins the election.
But far and away the most serious threat to the effectiveness of a Biden presidency and a Democratic House and Senate is the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 senators, instead of a simple majority of 51, to move forward on most legislation. Even if Democrats win the Senate in November, they very likely won’t have 60 votes, meaning that Republicans could still block legislation from being debated. Progressives have long wanted to abolish the supermajority voting threshold, but the idea has begun to gain traction among other Democrats, too, in recent weeks. Perhaps, some Democrats argue, the filibuster is a natural place to launch their democracy-reform initiative: They can put forward a slew of policies strengthening ethics guidelines and expanding voting rights—including a bill that would restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965—and dare Republicans to vote against it. (The VRA had strong bipartisan support until the mid-2000s.) “It’s a pretty easy argument to make,” the aide to the centrist senator told me. “Democrats would be happy to be like, Look at these fuckin’ guys! They still want to make it difficult for people of color to vote!”
Progressives are enthusiastic about that plan. “If I had to guess how it’s going to happen, it’s going to be, If we can’t pass the VRA, we’re going to get rid of the filibuster,” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me. “Starting with H.R. 1 is a good idea,” Representative Ro Khanna of California told me. “The filibuster could come right next.”
Then again, Democrats might not have any of these options in January. Trump could win the election; Republicans could hold the Senate or even win control of the House. The Democrats could sweep, but have something else at top of mind. Or, some of my Hill sources suggested, Biden may want to start off his first term by pursuing legislation that is more amenable to Republicans, though none of the aides I spoke with could identify what that unifying project might be. When asked about Biden’s own legislative priorities, a campaign spokesperson responded that his No. 1 goal will be “repairing and rebuilding from the economic ruin and public-health crisis caused by Donald Trump’s utter failure to fulfill his basic duty as president: protect America.”
Even if they win full control, though, Democrats won’t have a lot of time. As my colleague Ronald Brownstein noted recently, “the last four times a president—of either party—went into a midterm with unified control, voters have revoked it. … No party has controlled all the levers of government for more than four consecutive years since 1968.” And a President Biden and an incoming Democratic Congress will be facing a mountain of tasks. There will almost certainly be early battles over government funding and coronavirus-response packages.
If Democrats find themselves in the majority again for the first time in more than a decade, though, they are determined not to squander the opportunity. In his July eulogy for Representative John Lewis, Obama implored lawmakers to quickly make changes that protect and expand the right to vote—not for partisan advantage, he insisted, but in an effort to form a more perfect union. Republicans remain skeptical. But Democrats were listening.