By Ella Nilsen
Two moderate House Democrats are introducing a bill aiming to root out corporate influence where it currently thrives: Washington, DC.
On Friday, Reps. Max Rose (NY) and Josh Harder (CA) will introduce the “Ban Corporate PACs Act,” which would ban for-profit corporations from being allowed to sponsor, operate, or fund PACs. Vox was given an exclusive first look at the legislation.
The bill’s co-authors see it as a necessary addition to the HR 1 — also known as the “For the People Act” — the vast anti-corruption bill that was House Democrats’ first priority after taking back the majority in 2018. HR 1 passed the House way back in early March, but it has gone nowhere as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vehemently opposes it.
“We always said HR 1 was just the beginning,” Rose told Vox in an interview. Rose called corporate PACs “legalized bribery” that “should not have a place in this town.”
His co-author, Harder, agreed. Nodding to the 2020 election, the members of Congress noted that while nearly all Democratic candidates running for president have taken a no-corporate PAC pledge, and multiple Democrats running for House and Senate have done the same thing — the idea should be mandatory.
The two members want this bill to be part of the House’s end-of-year agenda, but if it is passed in the House, it likely won’t go anywhere in the Republican controlled Senate. Still, anti-corruption reforms are incredibly popular with the American public across party lines.
“I think the impression a lot of folks have around the country is that Washington is a town controlled by corporate interests — there’s a lot of truth to that,” Harder told Vox.
Banning corporate PACs is becoming increasingly popular among Democrats
Rose and Harder’s bill calls for an outright ban of corporate PACs, which saw a resurgence after the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
That decision made it clear the Supreme Court viewed money and outside spending in elections as free speech. And it paved the way for outside groups to spend unlimited sums of money on elections.
That’s ushered in a new political era in the United States, one where each election tops the amount of spending in the last. The 2016 election is the most expensive to date, costing over $6.5 billion (including Senate, House, and presidential campaigns). And the 2018 midterms were the most expensive midterms thus far, weighing in at over $5.7 billion for just Senate and House races.
Forswearing corporate PACs has become somewhat of a trend in the Democratic Party. At the beginning of the race, all Democratic candidates pledged they would not take corporate PAC money. A smaller group said they would not take Super PAC money, but some have been more open about their reliance on Super PACs, including newly minted presidential candidate Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts.
It’s not just at the presidential level; in 2018, close to 200 candidates for US House pledged to not take corporate PAC money. Watchdog outlet OpenSecrets noted most of those Democrats not only followed through on their promise of not accepting money from corporate PACs, but also that many times that decision didn’t disadvantage their fundraising because individual donors were so willing to give in the 2018 cycle.
For many of the freshman Democrats, like Harder and Rose, who campaigned on a no corporate PAC pledge, the culture of Washington was a bit of a shock. As House Democrats were rolling out HR 1 this spring, some freshman told Vox they were being approached by more senior members and pressured to ditch their promise.
“Mostly from members who have been here a long time … a few of whom have been very dismissive and said, ‘You’re going to have to get rid of that,’” Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA) told Vox this spring.
Harder, who beat Republican incumbent Jeff Denham in California’s 10th Congressional District, remembered going to what he thought was going to be a policy discussion shortly after arriving in DC as a new member of Congress.
“All it is is a whole row of lobbyists really eager to have conversations, and that’s basically been every day since,” Harder told Vox. “The peeks into it I’ve seen are really frustrating. It’s not just this is a corrupting influence, this is also a huge impediment to the things we want to get passed.”
And of course, Republicans have no such qualms about accepting corporate PAC money, which drives the arguments of some older Democrats who say their party needs to take it to stay competitive. Republicans in the Senate have also been an impediment to Democrats’ attempts at reform. McConnell has refused to take up HR 1 and similar bills, arguing it infringes on constitutionally protected free speech.
Rose, a freshman member of Congress representing Staten Island with a penchant for being blunt, sees it differently.
“Mitch McConnell has never met a corporate PAC, federal lobbyist, dark money outfit that he doesn’t immediately fall in love with,” Rose said. “He is not a supporter of the swamp, Mitch McConnell is the swamp.”
Anti-corruption bills are politically popular
If there’s one thing Democratic and Republican voters can agree on, it’s that Washington is corrupt and dysfunctional.
The belief there’s too much money in Washington goes across party lines. A 2015 New York Times/CBS poll found 84 percent of Americans thought money had too much influence in politics, and 66 percent believed wealthier Americans had more political influence.
Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp” and pledges not to run on outside money that wasn’t his own were hugely popular in 2016. Come 2018, House Democrats crushed Republicans in a wave election as they hammered a message about cleaning up a “culture of corruption” that had run rampant in the Trump White House.
And although McConnell and Republicans oppose Democrats’ HR 1, the sweeping bill was politically popular, including with Independent voters. A January poll by End Citizens United poll found 75 percent of 2018 voters in battleground House districts said cracking down on Washington corruption was their top priority, followed by 71 percent who wanted to protect Social Security and Medicare, and 70 percent who listed growing the economy and jobs.
Furthermore, 82 percent of all voters and 84 percent of independents said they support a bill of reforms.
Since HR 1 could not be passed, Rose and Harder are hoping this smaller provision will be politically harder for the Republican-controlled Senate to ignore.
“This bill is a response to a feeling out in the country about who has power in Washington and who should have power in Washington,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director for End Citizens United.