By Mike Lillis - 07/16/13 06:02 PM EDT
Two powerful Democrats are poised to urge President Obama to resuscitate a defunct federal panel created to help Americans vote.
The four-seat board has been empty for more than a year, largely because GOP leaders — wary of Washington's role in state-run elections — have refused to recommend nominees to fill the spots, as current law dictates.
That's a mistake, Hoyer said, particularly in a political environment where an increasing number of states have made it tougher to vote in the name of fighting fraud.
"The Election Assistance Commission was established to provide advice and council on best practices on elections. It has been allowed to atrophy, and the Republicans want to eliminate it," Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol. "It's interesting but disappointing."
The EAC was created as part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which passed in response to the turmoil surrounding the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. The legislation received broad bipartisan support in both the House (357-48) and the Senate (92-2) before Bush signed it into law.
Since then, however, the panel has been mired in charges of partisan politicking, and GOP leaders have declined to name any nominees to make the board operative. In 2011, Republicans passed legislation eliminating the EAC altogether. The Democratically controlled Senate never took up the bill.
Hoyer, Lewis and other supporters of reviving the board argue that recent efforts by some states to install tougher voting rules — including new voter ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements — make the EAC more necessary than ever. In June, Reps. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced legislation strengthening the panel, but without Republican backing, the proposal has no chance of passing the House.
On a similar topic, Hoyer on Tuesday also vowed to fight to restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which the Supreme Court largely invalidated late last month.
The court's conservative majority ruled 5-4 last month that a decades-old formula dictating which states must get federal approval before changing their voting laws is outdated and therefore unconstitutional.
Hoyer said the case "was decided incorrectly," and Congress has an "affirmative responsibility to facilitate the access and casting of votes in America."
Hoyer said he met last week with Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), a champion of the VRA who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when the bill was last reauthorized in 2006.
"He believes the court's judgment was wrong [and that] the court substituted its interpretation of the facts for the Congress's," Hoyer said of the Wisconsin conservative.
Hoyer cited a 2006 congressional study which found enough evidence of continued discrimination to merit the bill's reauthorization that year — an effort that sailed through both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support.
"There was no partisan difference [then], and I'm hopeful and expect we can move forward on a bipartisan basis [now]," Hoyer said.
It will be no easy task, as passage of a new formula will require bipartisan agreement about which states are most prone to discriminate against minorities. That would be a heavy lift in any political environment, but even more so in the face of the entrenched partisanship of today's Congress.