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Historic 116th Congress: Two Chambers Offer Contrasting Views for Our Future

Introduction by Common Cause President, Karen Hobert Flynn

The 116th Congress was historic for many reasons. Historians will point to the obvious–the third impeachment of a president in U.S. history and the underwhelming Special Counsel Report by Robert Mueller that led up to it. The surprisingly revealing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 1,000+ page bipartisan report, which outlines Russia’s concerted attempt to sway the 2016 presidential election, should be highlighted for seeing the light of day in a Senate that has been devoid of substantive action with scant exceptions. Majority Leader Mitch McConell proudly claims the Senate is a “legislative graveyard” earning his title as the “gravedigger of democracy.”

But for the long term interest of the republic, the 116th Congress should be noted as a harbinger of change. What that change looks like depends on which chamber you look at and which path voters decide to follow in November 2020.

In the House of Representatives, the 116th Congress will be known for the largest and most diverse class of new members in a dramatic shift in the balance of power. They came to Washington on a mission reflected in the For the People Act. Designated as H.R. 1, a statement of the highest priority given to the most sweeping democracy reform bill ever introduced. This comprehensive, democracy reform package includes a bold set of solutions already working in cities and states across the country. The newly elected representatives were of the people, had seen these local laws passed by the people, and seem determined to work toward a Congress that will win them for the people, so democracy works for all of us, not just the wealthy special interests.

As dynamic, diverse, and hopeful as the House was, the Senate was a harbinger of a different kind of change; darker, a dearth of ideas, and grim foreshadowing of a time when dissent and debate aren’t allowed. The GOP, with the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (UT), moved in near lock-step under Leader McConnell’s iron grip, fearful that the president’s tweets could lead to a primary opponent from their right.

The Senate failed to stand up to President Trump’s continued abuses of power and disregard   for the rule of law. They turned a blind eye toward the Trump administration’s ongoing attempts to hijack the government for his own personal and political gain. Other than President Trump’s own actions, the GOP-controlled Senate’s complicity created the second biggest threat to our democracy.

The Senate’s decision not to convict President Trump on charges of abuse of power or obstruction of Congress at the impeachment trial emboldened him and his administration. From suppressing votes to reduce voter turnout in predominantly Black and Brown communities through voter purges, to excluding undocumented individuals from the Census, to ordering federal troops onto American streets in a move repudiated by the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of staff and his own Secretary of Defense, to disrupting the United States Postal Service to create confusion and cast doubt on voting by mail, to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence no longer doing in-person briefings for Congress about foreign interference in our elections and thus provide an open invitation to infiltrate our elections, President Trump has shown that he will use every lever of government to benefit himself.

President Trump’s abuses of power are especially egregious when seen in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when a leader should pull us together, Trump continues to tear us apart. The pandemic created a health and economic crisis, exacerbated by the Trump administration’s ineptitude, but he alone has created a crisis for our democracy. As he stokes fears about nearly non-existent vote fraud, his party files multiple lawsuits in swing states against common-sense voting reforms, such as expanded vote-by-mail and ballot drop boxes.  Now, millions of Americans will be forced to choose between risking their health and their right to vote this year. If the primaries are any indication, it appears the people are ready to overcome any obstacle to make sure their voices are heard in 2020.

As if to underscore the need for transformational change in our politics and society, the pandemic also highlighted the vast racial disparities in health care, jobs, access to education, policing, and criminal justice. If people were unaware of these glaring problems before the pandemic, it became impossible to ignore them as they played out in the news to a global audience sheltering in place to curtail the spread of coronavirus. George Floyd’s murder by police and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed led to a dramatic shift in public opinion and quick action in many jurisdictions to fundamentally change policing. It is only a start and just as Common Cause has worked to open government and remove barriers to full participation in our democracy for 50 years now, we are committed to seeing the end of systemic racism and working to ensure our system of self-governing truly works for everyone.

Common Cause

Common Cause founder John W. Gardner sought to bring the energy and passion of the 1960’s civil rights, women’s liberation, and anti-war protests and merge the outsider power evident in protests with an insider’s knowledge of Washington and Congress. He saw citizens engaging in the democratic process made a difference. As a Republican, he served in President Johnson’s cabinet as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and is considered by historians as one of the chief architects of the Great Society. It was his profound faith in the people and our ability to adapt and change with the times that focused him on the political process and the need for systemic change.

After leaving the administration respectfully, though in disagreement over resources going to war that should have been invested in the Great Society, he continued his work at the National Urban Coalition in the late 1960’s. Gardner and other members of the board saw the need for a citizens lobby to open up government and introduce more transparency and accountability, making sure the people were as organized with a voice in Washington as were the special interests. On August 18, 1970, Gardner placed a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline “In Washington, everybody is organized but the people” inviting people to join in Common Cause. Within six months, 200,000 members began charting a new path to engage in self-governing, bringing protest and pragmatism together.

“We want public officials to have literally millions of American citizens looking over their shoulders at every move they make,” Gardner wrote. “We want phones to ring in Washington and state capitols and town halls. We want people watching and influencing every move that government makes.”

Common Cause kicked open the doors to the smoke-filled back rooms, flung open the curtains to let sunshine laws light the way for more reform, helped pass the 26th Amendment that gave 18-year-olds the right to vote and helped bring the VietNam War to an end. We followed the money that led to the Watergate break-in, and used the scandal-ridden Nixon administration to  catalyze significant reforms such as the Ethics in Government Act, the Federal Election Campaign Act, and the presidential small-donor matching fund system that gave us two of the cleanest elections in history in 1976 and 1980.

The 2020 Democracy Scorecard

Gardner’s idea continues to animate our work. The principles and values of a government as good and as diverse as its people guides the selection of issues in this 2020 Democracy Scorecard. As we enter our next 50 years of holding power accountable, we continue to build support for comprehensive reforms that would correct some of the most egregious abuses of power from the Trump administration.

Common Cause’s 2020 Democracy Scorecard:

  • Provides data on every current member of Congress based on their votes for, or cosponsorship of, key democracy reform bills;
  • Amplifies the voices of everyday Americans who have been silenced by big money in politics, voter suppression, and other tactics to block people from participating; and
  • Reflects a commitment to ensuring that all Americans’ voices can be heard in our government and that everyone plays by the same set of common-sense rules.

When enacted, the legislation outlined in this Scorecard would:

  • Overturn the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision;
  • Strengthen our voting laws by updating provisions of the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Shelby v. Holder ruling;
  • Ensure that all residents are counted in the census;
  • Provide automatic registration so that voters are added to voter rolls when they do business with state agencies;
  • Create independent citizens’ commissions to draw new legislative districts to end gerrymandering and make sure voters choose their representatives, not the other way around;
  • Enhance transparency requirements for political contributions and spending;
  • Break the power of big money in our elections by incentivizing small-dollar contributions and crack down on foreign influence in our election; and
  • Tighten the prohibition on political spending by foreign entities.

Cosponsorships are just one metric to gauge support for democracy reform, and there are democracy reform champions in Congress who this Scorecard might not fully recognize. The House of Representatives has passed hundreds of bills, many of which have bipartisan support, but which Senator McConnell refuses to consider. Senate Republican leadership and committee chairs have blocked debate and mark-ups on dozens of key democracy bills that are desperately needed to give all Americans a greater voice in our democracy, so there are very few Senate votes to consider for this Scorecard.

In fact, the Senate’s inaction has the 116th Congress on track to be the least productive in history, with just one percent of the bills becoming law, as this Scorecard is published.

Despite its limitations, we believe the Scorecard provides a useful tool for voters to see that there are solutions for strengthening our democracy. In recent months, we sent multiple staff in each congressional office four letters listing the bills included in this year’s Scorecard; we wanted to make sure every member of Congress knew which bills he or she was being evaluated on. Since these letters were sent, a combined total of more than 150 cosponsors have been added to these collective bills as a result of our Scorecard.

Common Cause is nonpartisan and never endorses or opposes candidates for elected office. We publish this Scorecard as a guide so concerned citizens can evaluate the records of their members of Congress on key democracy reform issues and build support for these solutions. We urge all readers to check the performance of their senators and representatives on issues covered in the Scorecard. In Gardner’s spirit, all citizens should work to hold power accountable by making the phones ring in Washington, their state capitals, and local government offices to ensure that government will truly be of, by, and for the people.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The author of Common Cause’s 2020 Democracy Scorecard is Aaron Scherb, and this is our third biennial Democracy Scorecard. Many thanks to designer Kerstin Diehn’s creativity and flexibility, which were integral to its completion. We very much appreciate Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn’s continued leadership and support for this project, as well as Vice President for Communications Scott Swenson’s guidance and input. We also want to thank the dozens of congressional offices that replied to the Democracy Scorecard letters that we sent to all Capitol Hill offices several times this year.

While other worthy legislation certainly could have been included in this Scorecard, we had to limit its scope and were only able to incorporate a fraction of the many democracy reform bills that have been introduced in the 116th Congress. We didn’t include a handful of Members of Congress who won special elections due to a vacancy and joined partway through the session because they were not in office for a majority of the votes. Members who were absent for a vote, didn’t cosponsor the initial bill, and didn’t publicly indicate how they would’ve voted for the bill were counted as a no. All cosponsors listed in this Democracy Scorecard were taken from the Congress.gov website as of September 8, 2020. If you have feedback on this Democracy Scorecard or have ideas about what should be included in a future scorecard, please feel free to share those comments with Aaron Scherb, Common Cause’s Director of Legislative Affairs, at ascherb@commoncause.org.