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House GOP election law overhaul may try to protect donors

Conservative lawmakers looking to enact long list of priorities

“Political speech is protected speech,” said House Administration Chair Bryan Steil, R-Wis.
“Political speech is protected speech,” said House Administration Chair Bryan Steil, R-Wis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Administration Committee Republicans argued for strengthening voter identification laws, while loosening donor disclosure requirements, as they prepare legislation aimed at protecting political speech in elections.

At a committee hearing Thursday, they said the First Amendment  is under attack from “misinformation czars” and “cancel culture,” and that Congress needs to act to bolster election integrity and voter confidence.

“Political speech is protected speech,” House Administration Chair Bryan Steil, R-Wis., said in his opening remarks. “Unfortunately, in our highly politicized, political culture and climate, the First Amendment has been under attack. … As a result, many Americans have grown concerned that their voices will be suppressed, or that their beliefs will be weaponized against them.”

The hearing was the second in a series that will culminate in the reintroduction of the American Confidence in Elections Act, which was first introduced by Republicans in 2022 and includes a long list of conservative election priorities.

The original bill had six subsections, addressing issues like election integrity, voter confidence, election security, protecting political speech and campaign finance reform. A senior House Republican aide said the new bill would be similar to the first, with a few tweaks. A draft is not yet available.

The political speech and campaign finance reform section would relax regulations on state party committees, shield tax exempt organizations from donor disclosure requirements and remove statutory limits for aggregate individual contributions, among other proposals.

Protection for potential conservative donors is needed within the “woke culture that we find ourselves … where retribution has been, and is, taken onto people because of their political beliefs, their religious beliefs, their thoughts,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga.

Panelist Harmeet Dhillon, who in January ran unsuccessfully to be Republican National Committee chair, said disclosure requirements could deter people from making donations.

“Donors across the board, but mostly conservatives … are concerned that if they express their political speech through contributions to nonprofits that are disfavored by the government in power, or state actors, what have you, they will be punished for their speech through audits, investigations, harassment, et cetera,” said Dhillon, who represented President Donald Trump’s campaign in the wake of his 2020 loss and false claims of election fraud.

Asked by House Administration Committee ranking member Joseph D. Morelle, D-N.Y., whether President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Dhillon responded: “He won a deeply flawed election. He is the president of the United States.”

Morelle and other Democrats said disclosure laws were a crucial tool in combating dark money in elections, citing the recent indictment of Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., for allegedly misusing campaign funds (among other charges) and recent reports of gifts and trips given to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas by influential Republican donor Harlan Crow.

Morelle quoted former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said in 1913 that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

“This observation supporting transparency and good governance remains true today,” Morelle said. “Transparency about who is seeking to influence federal elections is critical to democratic self governance.”

Republicans on the committee have stopped short of publicly claiming the 2020 election was stolen, though four of the five committee Republicans in office on Jan. 6, 2021 voted to overturn the election results. 

They have dedicated significant time in hearings to the alleged risks of voter fraud and noncitizen voting and stressed the importance of enhanced voter ID laws nationwide, which Steil argued have increased voter turnout. 

Damon Hewitt, executive director of the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, testified at a March House Administration Committee hearing that Georgia’s recently implemented voter ID laws led to a greater disparity between white and black voter turnout in the state.

Thursday’s hearing came the morning after Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner for 2024, repeated falsehoods about the 2020 election during a CNN town hall. It also came less than a week after Politico broke news that the House Administration Committee had hired a former Trump campaign staffer, Thomas Lane, who was subpoenaed by the Department of Justice as part of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s plan to send fake electors to Washington.

Lane was hired as elections counsel to the committee earlier this year.

“For junior staff I’m not concerned about who they worked for previously. I now run this committee, every staff member on this committee is operating under my direction and we’re going to move forward with a robust agenda to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Steil said after the meeting in response to questions about Lane’s employment.

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