Last Friday I was interested to watch a segment of The Rachel Maddow Show (TRMS) – a US news and current affairs programme on MSNBC which I’ve mentioned before on this blog – which contrasted the policy agenda of the incoming Democrat Congress (i.e. the House of Representatives) with that of the previous Republican controlled House of 2016. This development was not reported widely given that it was swamped in the news cycle by Trump’s partial shutdown of the US government. Nevertheless, it’s a worthy news item and worth sharing given the links and ideological similarities between many of our Tory politicians and Republicans, and to a lesser extent Labour politicians and Democrats, of course.
Specifically, the feature looked at the first substantive Bill introduced by Democrats: HR1 the For the People Act. This Bill is in keeping with the landmark Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. It’s a potentially huge reform Act which includes:
- Nationwide voter registration (currently organised and managed at State level and in many different ways).
- An independent commission to draw/redraw the boundaries of electoral districts to put an end to the gerrymandering which has been a particular feature of American politics since the REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) initiative of Republicans in 2010 (which has been described as intending to create a ‘firewall against the popular will of voters’ and in many cases has succesfully done so).
- Two weeks of early voting in every state.
- Ex-felons have their voting rights restored (extremely important in a US context because of the percentage of African Americans sent to prison).
- Election day will be made a Federal holiday.
- Prohibition of aggressive voter purges (in the US states can purge – i.e. clear or delete – electoral registration lists between elections therefore requiring voters to re-register before they can vote in the next elections. This device significantly disadvantages certain categories of citizen while favouring others).
- So called “dark money” groups will have to disclose their donors.
- A small donor matching system where the Federal government will match the contribution of small donors thus attempting to break the influence of large (wealthy) donors (corporate and private) on the US political system.
- Candidates for President and Vice President and sitting Presidents and Vice Presidents have to disclose 10 years of tax returns.
There is more, but this is a summary of the main elements.
Contrast this with the first substantive Bill of Trumpian Republicans in 2016, which was a Bill to make it easier for mentally ill people to buy guns and ammunition. As Rachel Maddow notes, this was people who had been adjudicated to have mental illness serious enough that they were not legally allowed to manage their own affairs. Nevertheless, Republicans in the House thought this was such an important issue (I’m honestly not sure for whom – the NRA perhaps?) that it required legislation immediately upon taking control of that branch of the US government.
Leaving aside this glaring disjunction between the policy priorities of what we might in general terms refer to as the right and left of US politics, with Republicans still in control of the Senate and with Trump in the White House how many elements of the For the People Act that actually pass into law is an open question. For example, given how much time and effort Republicans have put into their strategy of gerrymandering any district where this is possible they are not likely to willingly give up a situation which in many states systematically favours the GOP (Republicans) over Democrats. And there is no way that Trump or his acolytes will agree to a Bill that leads to the disclosure of his tax returns.
From a UK perspective voter registration is likely to become an increasing issue here, as we saw at the last election, as indeed will voter ID as this acts as a deterent to voting for some citizens (as it does in the US and from which I’m sure the Tories have copied this policy). I also particularly like the idea of a small donation matching system. Again, as with the US system – though thankfully not (yet) on the same scale – our political system – and thus our public policy process – is unduly and unfairly influenced by large (wealthy) donors to the detriment of what is supposed to be a democratic system. The Tory party and Tory governments have no incentive to do anything about this, of course, given they are the most significant beneficiaries. But if Labour and other parties were serious about forms of reinventing or reinvigorating democracy this would be a very effective place to start.
In the meantime, I’ll watch with interest progress of the For the People Act. Given the extent to which the Presidency has been debased under Trump and the system of government in the US brought into utter disrepute in the years Republicans have controlled all branches of government some form of counter offensive is well overdue. That said, and as I noted above, in reality little is likely to succeed with Mitch McConnell and his cowardly band of Republican lickspittles controlling the Senate and that disaster of a human being, Trump, in the White House.
McConnell and his merry band have already shown that many of the supposedly ideological positions Republicans had argued for over years (or decades in some cases), such as concern with the deficit, or free trade, were in fact nothing more than convenient totems to be cast aside when it came to a choice between beliefs and values and power. As I was taught many years ago: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Amen to that.