The Democrats are leading off with a bill to 'restore democracy'

Now that Democrats control the House, there has been much speculation about what the party’s agenda will be. Party leaders were coy during the election cycle about what the party sought to do. For every voter who wanted Congress to impeach Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE, there was another who wanted Democrats to establish their own policy agenda and try to appeal to alienated working class voters.

Democrats have already told us, however, what their first priority is. H.R. 1, the first piece of legislation introduced in the 116th Congress, includes election and government reforms and campaign finance fixes such a requirement that super PACs disclose their donors and the provision of matching funds for small donations to candidates; limitations on gerrymandering; automatic voter registration; a requirement that presidential candidates make their tax returns public; a prohibition on the use of federal funds by members of congress settling sexual harassment lawsuits; and much more.


The Democrats are following Republicans’ lead in presenting H.R. 1, not just as a bill that happened to be introduced early, but as a defining piece of legislation (in the last Congress, H.R. 1 was the tax cut bill). Incoming Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia Democrats hope to salvage Biden's agenda on Manchin's terms  MORE and Representative John SarbanesJohn Peter Spyros SarbanesMaryland Democrats target lone Republican in redistricting scheme Democrats push to shield election workers from violent threats   Rep. Bush drives calls for White House action on eviction moratorium lapse MORE penned an op-ed in the "Washington Post" about the bill on Nov. 25, describing it as a bill to “restore democracy.”

The bill has prompted a bit of head scratching in the mainstream and liberal media. The Washington Post observed that the party was caving in to unidentified outside groups that wanted Democrats to pursue their priorities early in the legislative session. The New Yorker noted that the specific proposals in the bill fell far short of the measures progressives have advocated and in some cases, implemented at the state level.

And commenters at the Daily Kos wondered why all of these proposals were packaged together as opposed to being presented as separate bills. Everyone agrees that the Senate will never pass the bill and the five House committees that are expected to have jurisdiction over it will likely change it substantially.

So why start with this? It is natural to look at any sort of legislation and ask what problem the bill in question seeks to solve. It would be fair to ask why the priority of this House is not, for instance, combating climate change or confronting the opioid crisis. Restoring democracy seems like a noble goal, but it isn’t exactly a policy problem.

The most consequential changes to American campaigns of the past 50 years, however, have not come about in this fashion. In 1972, policy scholars Michael Cohen, James Marsh and Johan Olson proposed an alternate way to understand organizational change which they dubbed the “garbage can model.”

The logic of the garbage can model is that a variety of policy solutions tend to be out there waiting for problems. When a crisis occurs, decision makers reach into the proverbial “garbage can” and take out the solution that looks like it addresses the problem. The key here, especially when it comes to elected officials, is that the solution “looks like” it addresses the problem.

As David Mayhew stated in his 1974 book, “Congress: The Electoral Connection,” lawmakers are concerned with claiming credit for doing things and they do not necessarily have the time, expertise, or motivation to craft solutions that truly fit the problems that arise.

To see how this plays out in practice, consider the following two examples: in 1973, the details of the Watergate scandal became known to the public. The problem was that the president had overseen a scheme to cover up the burglary of the Democratic National Committee office.

Foremost among the solutions enacted by Congress was the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which established individual contribution limits for campaign contributors, caps on candidate spending and the establishment of political action committees (PACs) as vehicles for group contributions.

FECA had little to do with the specifics of Nixon’s transgressions, but it did have something to do with reducing corruption and improving the quality of campaigns and most importantly, the ideas were there waiting for Congress to act upon them.

Similarly, consider the odyssey of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill. The bill kicked around Congress for a decade and it changed significantly during that time. By the time of its passage in 2002, it included limits on party fundraising, restrictions on interest group advertising and a complex system of providing additional campaign funds for candidates who ran against self-financing millionaires.

What ultimately caused the McCain-Feingold bill’s passage? The bill acquired the votes necessary to pass the Senate shortly after the Enron scandal, as senators who had received contributions from Enron looked for something they could support that allowed them to distance themselves from the energy company. The McCain-Feingold bill had little to do with the specific crimes that Enron executives were accused of, however, it appeared to address corruption.

So what does this suggest about H.R. 1? The bill is a proverbial garbage can of reforms that have something to do with corruption. There is a very high probability that the Mueller investigation will continue to reveal unsavory things that happened in the 2016 election and it may very well turn up something that Trump did which would inspire some senators to grab onto something in that garbage can which makes them look like they are combating corruption. If the thing they grab onto doesn’t necessarily address the particulars of whatever Trump may have done, it doesn’t matter.

Nothing about the garbage can model suggests that the things in it (the “garbage”) are bad or harmful; in the absence of details we can’t know how the pieces of H.R. 1 will work, but they mostly seem like improvements on the status quo. Passing legislation like this seems like a reasonable ambition for this House of Representatives.

We have not had a Democratic House and a Republican Senate since the Reagan administration and no one would present the Republican House’s approach to the Democratic Senate of the 2010-2014 period as a model of how to navigate divided government. If the House can pass bills like this and put them out there for senators to grab onto, the next few years may provide us with enough surprises that at least some of them may eventually become law.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.