WASHINGTON – Reformers are by nature impatient. But historically their victories have come from long, sustained efforts that began in periods when conservatives were dominant.
Many aspects of Franklin Roosevelt’s program were first advanced during the administrations of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. They reached fruition when the political atmosphere changed. In his book on the great progressive Fiorello La Guardia’s time in Congress during the Roaring ’20s and early ’30s, the historian Howard Zinn noted that “the impressive legislative structure of the famed first hundred days of the New Deal owed much to the foundation dug earlier” by La Guardia and his like-minded colleagues battling in the wilderness of a stand-pat era.
Those seeking to deepen democracy, battle corruption and promote justice need to be ready when their moment comes.
This is why the recent introduction of the We the People Democracy Reform Act of 2017 by Rep. David Price, D-N.C, and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., could prove to be an important milestone even if the conflict-of-interest maven who occupies the White House and Republicans who currently dominate Congress choose to ignore it.
The bill is a compendium of ideas aimed at fixing particular problems in our political system. But its comprehensiveness underscores that the republican form of our government is being undermined by the rising power of oligarchic big money in politics and the increasingly unrepresentative nature of our institutions.
Thus do Price and Udall propose a system of matching funds for small contributions that would create a strong incentive for politicians to rely on large numbers of modest donations from rank-and-file citizens rather than on the massive stacks of money made available by billionaires.
Responding to the scandal of Russian interference in our election and the broader rise of advertising by shadowy groups about which voters know nothing, Price and Udall would expand disclosure rules to include paid internet and email communications as well as robocalls.
As a summary of the House version of the bill notes, “Corporations, labor unions, super PACs and other groups would be required to have their top official appear in and take responsibility for the ads, and the top five donors to a group would have to be listed in the ads.” Voters should know who is trying to influence them.
The bill also takes on gerrymandering by requiring states to establish independent citizen redistricting commissions to draw congressional district boundaries. It fights voter suppression by establishing automatic and same-day voter registration nationwide. And it addresses some of Trump’s specific abuses. It requires all presidential nominees to release their income tax returns. Both the president and vice president would have to divest themselves from any financial interest posing a potential conflict. Presidential visitor logs would also be made public.
“Our democracy is in trouble, as Donald Trump’s presidency has thrown into sharp relief,” Price said in an interview. “Some of our bill’s provisions deal specifically with Trump’s behavior … but many of these challenges have been building for a long time.”
Price hopes that Republicans might at some point be willing to enact specific elements of the bill. For example, he notes that members of both parties worry about “the danger of losing control of their campaign message to unaccountable outside groups.”
But the wide-ranging nature of the bill – it includes additional reform ideas introduced by various members of Congress over the years – sends a larger message about the need for “comprehensive reform,” he said, and the importance of being ready with “a clear set of proposals when the opportunity to pass them presents itself, as it inevitably will.”
Believe it or not, progressives can learn from the Republicans’ failure to end Obamacare. Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and a veteran of past reform efforts, notes that Republicans spoke for years about “repeal and replace.” But when political circumstances gave them a chance of working their will, they lacked a plausible policy alternative.
The lesson is that political movements should not squander their time in opposition. They should use the opportunity that a respite from power affords to think boldly, broadly and practically.
There is one other thing about reform: It happens when even those who are skeptical of change realize that the existing system cannot sustain itself. If Trump’s rise and the abuses of his presidency do not persuade us about the depth of our problem, nothing will.
The time has come to make our democracy democratic again. And now, no one can say that we lack ideas for how to do it.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.