House Democrats are set to pursue legislation that squarely targets President Trump by requiring presidential candidates to disclose 10 years of tax returns, mandating more transparency for presidential inaugural and transition committees and tightening White House ethics standards.
Those provisions are only a small part of a broad reform bill — titled the “For the People Act” — that encompasses campaign finance, election integrity and security, congressional ethics and more. But they are clear signals that Democrats intend to take an aggressive approach to Trump and his administration.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats unveiled an outline of the legislation Friday in the Capitol, which will move through several House committees over the coming weeks and is tentatively set for floor consideration early this year.
“It’s important for the confidence it gives people that their voices and their concerns are heard,” Pelosi said. “Restoring the people’s faith in government is really our agenda.”
Under the blueprint, presidents, vice presidents and candidates for those offices would all be required to release 10 years of returns — a move prompted by Trump’s refusal to release any returns throughout the 2016 campaign up to the present day, breaking with the practice of both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in recent decades.
This effort to secure Trump’s tax returns is moving in parallel to an effort to use existing federal law that allows the chairs of the congressional taxation committees to inspect any U.S. tax return. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) has said he expects to move deliberately in that direction over the coming months, though that gambit will probably be subject to litigation.
The other provisions respond to concerns about the operations of the Trump inaugural committee, which raised tens of millions of dollars with little formal transparency, and his transition team, which has been criticized for a lack of ethics oversight.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who had led the drafting of the bill, focused on other aspects of the bill in a recent briefing — including measures that would expand voter registration, improve access to voting options and tighten election security, as well as improve disclosure of political donors and reduce their outsize influence on the political process.
“I have a feeling the 2020 election is going to have a historic turnout for voting, and if we’re not ready for that we could end up with a train wreck,” he said. “This is a set of prescriptions to make sure every election that comes down the pike is handled in a respectful way.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has long advocated for fewer restrictions on political spending, said last month the bill was effectively dead on arrival in the Senate.
Sarbanes said he was not bothered by the rejection and said Democrats were determined to lay down a marker on good-government issues. Republicans, he added, might cooperate on some pieces of the package, such as digital ad transparency and election security.
“You could stamp on this thing, ‘McConnell rejected,’ and it would immediately give it more credibility,” he said. “If he wants to ultimately stand with his arms folded between the American people and their democracy, then he should go right ahead, but I think he’s going to get knocked over by where the sentiment of the country is right now.”
Other provisions of the bill include:
• A public financing system for presidential and congressional campaigns that would match donations up to $200 on a 6-to-1 basis. This represents the most ambitious effort endorsed by congressional Democratic leaders to mandate taxpayer support of political campaigns to counter the influence of wealthy donors. The provision, Sarbanes said, is modeled on systems set up in New York City and other small jurisdictions.
• Redistricting changes. The bill would require states use independent redistricting commissions to draw their congressional districts rather than more overtly political processes that could allow a single party to draw lines to its benefit.
• An expansion of “stand by your ad” disclosures. The law that prompts politicians to tell you they “approve this message” would be widened to include the leaders of corporations, unions and other organizations who purchase political ads.
• A prohibition on members of Congress serving on the boards of for-profit entities. Responding to the indictment last year of Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) on insider trading charges, House Democrats on Thursday passed new rules barring House members from serving on the boards of publicly traded corporations. But Democrats aim to make the prohibition more expansive and write it into federal law, not just the House rules.