On May 21, congressional Democrats unveiled a new plan entitled “A Better Deal for Our Democracy: Fixing Our Broken Political System and Returning to a Government Of, By and For the People.” With focuses on voting rights and access, campaign finance, and ending pay-to-play politics, this plan has the potential to begin cleaning up the corruption that is, unfortunately, deeply embedded in current American politics.
The plan is very much in line with reforms that we at Public Citizen and millions of other advocates for transparent, ethical government across America have been calling for decades, including amidst the flurry of ethical violations of the current administration. As Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen has said, “If this package passes, cronyism, corruption and far too much special interest money in our system will no longer be the norm.”
While many of the failings in our democracy predate the Trump administration, this president’s brazen disregard for government ethics has energized public interest in democracy reform. After almost a year and a half of the administration, the Democrats are seizing on this wave of energy by naming what we’ve seen so far as the “most corrupt administration in modern times.” And, it is true that corruption has seemed to be the name of the game in Washington recently. Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney, has openly admitted that his former congressional office operated on a pay-to-play policy. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was revealed to have ties to Fortune 500 companies, a Russian oligarch, and the Ukrainian government. It is becoming clearer all the time that many Trump administration insiders have secretive, unethical, and potentially illegal financial ties to corporate entities. That money has no place in politics, and Democrats are showing that they are ready to take aggressive steps to correct this.
The first step to purging corruption from Washington is to ensure that our leaders are chosen by the people, which is why voter reform is one of the key pillars of the Democrats’ new plan. This includes measures such as automatic voter registration and redistricting reform to end gerrymandering. The 2016 election yielded low voter turnout and low trust in the electoral system, not to mention the added concern of foreign meddling in American elections. Still, voting remains the foundation of the American democracy and the people’s voices need to be represented by selecting their elected leaders. The proposed voting reforms will help to strengthen this cornerstone of democracy and restore trust in the electoral system.
In addition to strengthening the process for putting people in office, the Democrats are proposing to tighten regulations on officials once they hold positions, both in the legislative and executive branches, and on both sides of the aisle. With regards to the executive branch, Democrats have honed in on Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” and his complete failure to do so when appointing members of his Cabinet, who exhibit unprecedented conflicts of interest. For both members of the cabinet and members of Congress, Democrats are proposing to tighten rules around lobbying and to make campaign finance more transparent. Clamping down on the ability of corporations to buy influence helps shift the government back into the hands of the people.
The plan also addresses the conflicts of interest that have resulted from revolving door issues, particularly under the Trump administration. Public Citizen found in March that more than 75 Trump administration lawyers had previously represented companies with business before the government or had previously worked in a field that they now oversee, creating a great deal of revolving door concerns. A proposal within the new plan would help combat this issue by prohibiting former lobbyists from taking on cabinet positions that would give them oversight of industries in which they were previously employed. This restriction would ensure that cabinet members are working for the good of the American people, not the good of those who put money in their pockets.
One concrete way in which the plan proposes to do this is by strengthening the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). As of now, the OGE has the ability to identify violations of ethics laws pertaining to conflicts of interest within the executive branch, but it does not have the ability to enforce compliance. Legislation under this new plan would give the agency that power of enforcement. With American citizens losing trust in individual elected and appointed officials, the strengthening of government oversight agencies is more important than ever. The new legislation will, as Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said, “put an ethics cop back on the beat” and therefore restore faith in an ethical government.
The issues of corruption and corporate money in politics date back to long before Trump took control of the White House. The Citizens United v. FEC case was decided in 2010, and the unsavory role of corporate influence on our democracy dates can be traced to long before that. Understanding how damaging that Supreme Court case has been, allowing untold amounts of secret money to flood our elections, it was especially heartening to see that the Democrat’s plan also included a call for an amendment to overturn Citizens United, something that Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign has been working hard to achieve for many years .
“The Better Deal for Our Democracy” plan gives us reasons to be optimistic that change might be coming in the near future, It is long past time for the country’s democracy to be rescued and for the American people to be able to place their trust in their government once again.