House panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference

House panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference
© Greg Nash

The House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced legislation on Wednesday intended to safeguard elections from foreign interference, sending it to the House floor for a vote following a heated debate among lawmakers over the bill.

The Safeguard Our Elections and Combat Unlawful Interference in Our Democracy Act, or the SECURE Our Democracy Act, was approved by voice vote after an hour of back-and-forth between committee members regarding the scope of the bill. 

The legislation is meant to “expose and deter unlawful and subversive foreign interference” in elections. It would require the State Department to submit to Congress a list of persons prior to 2015 who were involved in interfering in U.S. elections. Those included on the list will be banned from entering the U.S. and from obtaining a visa, and it would revoke visas already issued for persons on the list.

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A major topic of contention was whether the bill would apply to foreign actors who interfered in the 2016 presidential election, with Republicans proposing an amendment that would have applied the measures only to those who interfere in future U.S. elections. That measure was voted down by the Democratic majority.

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHistory in the House: Congress weathers unprecedented week Democrat grills DHS chief over viral image of drowned migrant and child Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp MORE (D-Va.), one of the sponsors of the overall bill, strongly pushed back against this proposed amendment, accusing Republican committee members of trying to “whitewash” what occurred during the 2016 presidential election.

The bill was previously introduced during the last Congress, with Connolly claiming that he and other sponsors had been told by former committee Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceMystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp House panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference MORE (R-Calif.) that the panel would consider it, but only if the bill’s language was changed to only address future elections.

Connolly and other sponsors refused this offer, with Connolly emphasizing that “if we don’t learn from the past, we are condemned to repeat our mistakes. We have to acknowledge what happened in 2016."

Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelTrump moves forward with billion F-16 sale to Taiwan Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Democrats slam alleged politicization of Trump State Department after IG report MORE (D-N.Y.), another sponsor of the bill, said the legislation was necessary because the Trump administration has not done enough to secure elections against foreign interference, saying President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE was not “taking the problem seriously.”

“I think not enough has been done to punish those who stuck their noses in our elections in 2016,” Engel said. “The response so far simply doesn’t fit the crime, and every time the president is pressed on the issue, he shrugs it off.”

Engel cited Trump’s interaction with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Trump, France's Macron discuss G-7 ahead of annual meeting Romney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' MORE last month at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Japan as an example of Trump not being focused on election security, with Trump grinning at Putin and telling him to not "meddle in the elections, please.”

Committee ranking member Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulTrump moves forward with billion F-16 sale to Taiwan Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China MORE (R-Texas) opposed the legislation due to it “seeming to ignore the substantial actions taken by both Congress and the administration, not to mention the millions of dollars spent investigating Russian interference” stemming from the 2016 elections.

Rep. Tim BurchettTimothy (Tim) Floyd BurchettHouse panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran 58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill MORE (R-Tenn.) said that by passing the bill, the committee would “send a message” to civil servants in the Department of Justice and in the Trump administration that the work done to bring indictments against those who interfered in the 2016 elections was “insufficient and half-hearted.”

One committee Republican cited the need for more to be done by the panel to address foreign interference in elections, with Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerHouse Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress House Democrats target 2020 GOP incumbents in new ad MORE (R-Ill.) saying he “unfortunately” opposed the Republican amendment that would have meant the bill only applied to future elections. 

“I feel like we have not done enough to recognize the reality of what exists, and the more messages we can send, the stronger and the more bipartisan we can send those messages, the more that we can prevent this from happening in the future,” Kinzinger said. 

While the Democrat-controlled House is likely to pass the legislation if brought up on the floor, it will likely fail in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Hobbled NRA shows strength with Trump MORE (R-Ky.) has refused to bring up election security legislation citing concerns around federalizing elections and that agencies have appropriate resources to address the risks.