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Democrats Pitch Voting Rights, Ethics Overhaul With Focus on Trump

Latest 2018 campaign theme reminiscent of 2006

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at Monday afternoon’s “A Better Deal for Our Democracy” press conference hosted by House and Senate Democrats. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at Monday afternoon’s “A Better Deal for Our Democracy” press conference hosted by House and Senate Democrats. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Congressional Democrats have returned to a playbook that might look familiar to anyone around Capitol Hill back in 2006.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer are seeking to overhaul a number of laws and root out government corruption.

“What we do on the inside here is only one part of our reaching success. The inside maneuvering — very important,” said Pelosi, a California Democrat, speaking on the East Front steps. “The outside mobilization — essential.”

Pelosi highlighted the outside groups that joined Schumer, a New York Democrat, and other members of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses involved with the push.

Back in 2006, as Democrats prepared for what would be a successful campaign to retake the majorities in Congress, leaders in the party unveiled their “Six for ’06” platform, which was heavy on ethics and lobbying reforms. 

Watch: Democratic Leaders Promote ‘Better Deal’ Agenda

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Some of the priorities look familiar: There’s an effort to try to fight against partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and to provide for automatic voter registration.

And what the Democrats are calling the pro-democracy planks of their “A Better Deal” agenda also include another long-shot bid at overhauling campaign finance laws, decrying the free flow of money ever since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

The most intriguing part might be a related component expected to be included in a House resolution that would address so-called honest services fraud. According to Lisa Gilbert, legislative affairs director for Public Citizen, that would include trying to address limitations imposed on the ability to bring public corruption cases against elected officials.

A variety of public corruption cases have run into trouble in recent years, due in part to the narrow definition of an “official act” provided by the Supreme Court in the case of former Virginia GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell. The high court overturned McDonnell’s corruption conviction in 2016, saying prosecutors’ definitions of fraud were overly broad and could be applied to almost any act public officials took if it could be connected to their supporters. 

“The system is broken in numerous ways, and only through bold leadership and strong practical systemic reforms can we begin to repair our democracy, and make it again something that Americans believe in and depend on,” Gilbert said in a statement about the full Democratic effort. “If this package passes, cronyism, corruption and far too much special interest money in our system will no longer be the norm.”

The most recent noteworthy public corruption trial involving a member of Congress was directed at a Democrat. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez was acquitted of some charges and had others dismissed.

The Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” Menendez for his acceptance of gifts and contributions, as well as his actions related to his friendship with South Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen.

Even as none of those actions was determined to meet the legal standard for criminality, Republican campaign operatives seized on the rollout by the Democrats as a way to hammer Menendez on ethics grounds.

“Even disgraced Senator Bob Menendez’s Democrat colleagues think he belongs in a jail cell,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Bob Salera said in a statement. “Menendez needs to tell New Jerseyans whether he agrees that federal bribery laws need to be strengthened, or if he thinks corrupt politicians like himself should be able to walk free.” Menendez is running for re-election this year. 

But Republicans appear to have no immediate plan to strengthen the ethics law related to the definition of “official acts” to clarify what sort of actions a lawmaker must take to commit fraud under federal law.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said, however, that he was interested in seeing what the Democrats in the House and Senate actually propose.

“I know obviously this is an ongoing concern and something we ought to be attentive to, because when we — when the public loses confidence in their public officials, obviously they lose confidence in their own government,” Cornyn said. “That’s something we shouldn’t tolerate.”

At their event outside the Capitol on Monday afternoon, Democrats focused much of their attention on going after alleged corruption by political appointees of President Donald Trump, as well as the president’s own business dealings.

Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, focused on the myriad investigations and scandals that have plagued EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Democrats also highlighted the controversy surrounding the purchase of a dining room set by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.

But the most direct connection to President Donald Trump might have come from Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois.

“Everybody knows that there’s an influence economy, and there’s no bigger revolving door than right down at the street at Trump’s international hotel. President Trump, in his first year in office, pockets $40 million off of that hotel,” Bustos said.

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