The most important legislation before Congress

It took six months, but the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party has finally apologized for his role in the Alex Morse smear campaign. 

The Department of Homeland Security is way more horrendously dysfunctional than we’d known before, according to a new investigation by Ken Klippenstein. The agency was slapped together after 9/11 so Congress could consolidate the power of domestic intelligence and law enforcement forces and look like it was doing something to respond. From a purely institutional perspective, it simply hasn’t worked, and after reading this you’ll probably agree it should be dissolved and its socially useful responsibilities -- some customs enforcements, investigating child sex trafficking, etc. -- returned to more functional and responsible agencies. 

We also published over the weekend, based on a ream of internal documents and and police records, an extraordinary look into the Chinese government’s repression of its Uyghur population -- what amounts to a sophisticated and slowly unfolding cultural genocide. 

The For The People Act

Despite getting very little public attention, the twin bills in Congress labeled HR1 and S1 are arguably the most important pieces of legislation drawn up in a generation. And Democrats are serious about passing them into law. The republic might be riding on it. 

The bills are actually a collection of dozens of pieces of legislation that Democrats have been working on for years around a handful of related but distinct issue areas: voting rights, gerrymandering, and campaign finance. 

One piece of HR1 would require political donors to disclose their identities, trying to put an end to dark money. Another element creates matching funds for candidates who agree not to accept big money. The bill doesn’t use taxpayer dollars, but instead makes the matching payments out of a fund created by fines for financial crimes. For every dollar a candidate raises in small money, the fund matches six times over. Those matching funds would also be available to candidates in primary elections, which has led to a ton of consternation inside the Democratic caucus. Why should we help fund our primary challengers, many have asked? But those objections have largely been beaten back, as the stakes of the fight have come into focus. 

The immediate stakes are these: Democrats currently hold 223 seats in the House. They need 218 for a majority. When all the vacancies are filled, they’re likely to have a cushion of six or seven seats, not much to sit on comfortably. Once the Census is released, House seats will be reapportioned. Partly because of the way the American population is flowing, and partly because the Trump administration deliberately rigged the Census, Democrats are going to get pounded. HR1 and S1 are likely the only chance the Democrats have to stave off this disaster. The bill ends gerrymandering, and also includes voting rights and campaign finance reform. 

These nine states, once the new Census figures are released, are set to lose a congressional district: California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia. Depending precisely on how the Census comes out, New York might actually lose two seats. (If it doesn’t lose a second seat, Alabama will lose one.) Those 10 seats are getting spread around: 3 will go to Texas, 2 to Florida, and one each to Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon. 

Broadly speaking, blue states are losing seats, and red states are gaining seats.

That shift alone could easily wipe out the party’s majority, especially when you add in gerrymandering. Republicans control the redistricting process in nearly all the states that’ll be getting new congressional seats: Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Montana and Florida, meaning they can redraw the lines not just to make sure they pick up the new seats the census is giving them, but win back a few extra that Democrats picked up in 2018. Out of all the states gaining a seat, Democrats can gerrymander only in Oregon.

Across the whole country, the imbalance is equally stark: In 20 states, Republicans will have the full ability to gerrymander. That’s only true of 9 Democratic states, and in most of those there aren’t many gains left to be made. The rest either have independent commissions or control of the state is split. Forgetting the Census process, Republicans would only have to successfully gerrymander one seat for every two states they control to win back the House. That’s incredibly easy to do given today’s mapping technology. Take Georgia, where Democrats just won 2 Senate seats. Republicans hold 8 House seats there and Democrats control 6. But it’s not hard to look at how a map could pack a lot more Democrats into a few seats in and around Atlanta, and leave Republicans with 10 and Democrats with 4. That’s just one state. 

If Republicans take the House in 2022, Biden’s legislative agenda is over. That likely means a stalled economy and more dysfunction in Washington, which puts Republicans in a strong position to take the White House in 2024, at which point Democrats could be relegated to near-permanent minority status despite a national numerical advantage. It’s hard to see how functioning Democratic institutions survive such a structural imbalance. 

That means HR1 and S1 are effectively the party’s last stand before a new era of minority-rule politics sets in. The bill ends gerrymandering, and also includes voting rights reforms -- most importantly automatic voter registration and same day registration -- that would bring millions of people off the sidelines and into the ballot box, or into the mail. If Republicans get their way, as they’re doing now in Georgia, they’ll do everything they can to make mail-in voting impossible -- which they blame for their 2020 loss of the white house and senate, and are vowing not to let happen again. 

Unlike Democrats, Republicans over the past 50 years have done everything in their power to create political structures that advantage them: They gutted campaign finance reform with Citizens United. They destroyed ACORN, a community organizing group that registered millions of voters a year. They took gerrymandering to a level of science in order to disenfranchise black voters. They created a fake scandal around the IRS to protect and expand their dark money operations. They overturned key portions of the Voting Rights Act. They introduced voter ID rules, shut down polling locations, and threw up all manner of obstacles to make it harder for struggling people to vote. The change to voting that has most benefited Democrats, meanwhile, has been the turn to mail. The ease with which small donors can now give to candidates has also been a boon to Democrats, foreshadowing the possibility of a party completely financed by regular people.

The rich and powerful would not be shut out of politics in a post HR1 world. They’d still own most of the media, think tanks, and other pieces of the political economy that structure our politics; They can still fund endless super PACs and give big checks to members of Congress who agree to take them. They can continue to hire armies of lobbyists. But it would be a more democratic world than the one we have now. And it’s actually within reach, though Republican opposition in the Senate means it can only become law if the filibuster is reformed to, at minimum, create an exception for voting rights and other democracy reform. The latter is being pushed by advocates of the legislation, who argue that you can’t allow a minority to obstruct legislation aimed at making the system more equitable.

HR1 is the subject of the Deconstructed podcast we put out today and what you just read is more or less the monologue that launches it, so if you give it a listen, you can skip the first seven minutes and 15 seconds.