This column was last updated on December 4, 2018.
Conventional wisdom has long held that Congress would never make fighting corruption and fixing the democratic process a top priority. Voters have many immediate concerns, including health care, jobs, and education, which crowd out esoteric issues such as campaign finance reform—or so the argument goes.
For decades, polling has tended to refute this argument, finding consistently that voters have lost confidence in the American political system. Today, 3 out of 4 Americans think that “the laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what powerful special interests and their lobbyists want.” Recent polling also found that “corruption in Washington” was rated the “most important” issue for candidates to address by more voters than any other issue; 77 percent of voters thought it was either the “most important” or “very important.” Voters understand that when politics is corrupted, their priorities take a back seat to the priorities of the privileged few. For once, leaders in the House of Representatives seem to understand it too.
The 2018 midterm elections proved the conventional wisdom wrong. Candidates across the country recognized the importance of combatting corruption and fixing democracy. They ran on it, they won, and they’re now poised to move forward major legislation in the House of Representatives to do just that.
Members—new and old—support democracy reform in record numbers
This year, the incoming House of Representatives is poised to pass the most sweeping democracy reform legislation since at least the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s. On November 6, Democratic candidates won a wave election to retake control of the House, in part by running on a platform of curbing Washington’s culture of corruption. Democratic leaders in the House, including House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), the head of the House Democracy Reform Task Force, have made clear that one of their first legislative priorities will be to pass changes to campaign finance, ethics, and voting rules.
They will do so with the overwhelming backing of the House Democratic caucus, including a substantial number of new members who campaigned on the need to reject special interests and restore public faith in American democracy. As the chart below shows, close to half of the members in the entering House have already committed, on the record, to following through on that message by passing a series of major reforms. (see Table 1)
Collectively, if enacted, these and other related reforms would fight corruption, restore the right to vote, and, in the words of a number of newly elected members, “categorically change the way Washington works.” With these reforms, campaigns would be funded in large part by small donors—not massive special interests. The source of every dollar spent on political ads would be disclosed. Foreign and special interests would be barred from certain types of political activity. Voting would be easier and more accessible than ever before. And that’s not to mention other reforms to tackle lobbying, ethics, and partisan gerrymandering, which will likely follow as well.
The wave of small-donor campaigns
Many House candidates—both new and old—already made an important down payment on these policy promises. They have gone out of their way to raise small contributions from regular people rather than large donations from special interests.
As shown in Table 2, House candidates elected for the first time—and first-time Democratic candidates in particular—have raised large shares of their campaign funds from small donors (those giving $200 or less) and increasingly small shares from special interests—most notably, corporate PACs. In fact, 122 House candidates in the 2018 midterm elections went so far as to reject corporate PAC money entirely, sending a strong message about their opposition to the special-interest-fueled status quo that distorts policymaking in favor of wealthy Americans and corporations. Far from hurting their campaigns, making clear that they will not be beholden to special interests has helped inspire small-donor support; through October 17th, candidates in competitive districts who made this pledge had already raised on average 110 percent more than what the winning candidate in their district raised in the 2014 midterms.
The fact that candidates were able to run competitive campaigns with more money from small donors and less or no money from corporate PACs demonstrates that publicly funded campaigns can be a viable replacement for the big-money system. And it shows that citizens reward politicians who are willing to reject special-interest backers.
New leaders reflect America’s diversity
The candidates newly elected to the House—particularly those who rejected corporate PAC money—better reflect America’s diversity than their predecessors. Most notably, there are now 100 women in the House, beating the previous record of 88 women. This represents an important step toward correcting the demographic imbalance in Congress, which skews heavily toward older white men and “reinforces the now-pervasive belief that our government is divorced from and unresponsive to the concerns of everyday people.”
What about the Senate?
To date, the Senate lags behind the House both in terms of diversity and on-the-record support for democracy reform. The latter may be principally a matter of timing: As expected, the Senate remains in the hands of a GOP majority that has shown little interest in fighting corruption and that recently lost its most reform-minded member, former Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who passed away in August 2018.
However, Senate support for democracy reform is growing. For example, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—alongside his colleagues in the House—announced his support for “A Better Deal for Our Democracy,” the package of reforms, including those listed above in Table 1, that is expected to pass the House. Notably, many of the senators who are leading the way on reforming American democracy have been rumored to be exploring runs for the presidency in 2020. And the impending House passage of major democracy reform legislation is certain to cement this as a key issue in the 2018 to 2020 presidential election cycle.
Many candidates in the 2018 midterm elections committed themselves to a more accountable democracy and demonstrated that commitment in how they conducted their campaigns. They also better reflected the diversity of their constituents. And many of them won.
All members of Congress should take heed: Until Congress acts, democracy reform issues are unlikely to go away. The American public will continue to demand that the rules of the rigged system be fixed. And the momentum for change is only building as a growing number of congressional leaders—and a historic coalition of civic-minded organizations, representing millions of Americans—demand a democracy that “reflects, responds to, and represents” all Americans.
Alex Tausanovitch is the associate director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress. Will Ragland is managing director of the War Room at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Aadam Barclay is an intern at the Center for American Progress.