The “For The People Act”, a gargantuan bill with a deceptively altruistic moniker, is moving its way through Congress in Washington, DC. Clocking in at more than 800 pages, the bill officially known as HR1 is Democrats’ highest priority legislation this year.
Like a well-played game of Three-card Monte where the real goal is to get you distracted by the sliding shells and keep you from seeing the important moves, much of the chatter coming out of Washington about HR1 is designed to distract you from the real impact of this bill.
The end game of HR1 isn’t the Democrats versus Republicans, or even election reformers versus 21st century Jim Crow laws, as it is being advertised. It’s actually a battle between incumbents and challengers, insiders and outsiders, the powerful and the rabble. And those in power would just as soon silence everyone else.
It’s the powerful elite versus anyone daring to challenge them or their system, on either side of the aisle. (And forget about it if you’re not one of the two major parties). If you’re not “in,” or you don’t currently have a voice in the political system, good luck being heard.
Yes, Democrats wrote and support the bill while Republicans oppose it, but the impact will fall on both. All those in power stand to gain, while everyone else — especially grassroots activists, right or left — who want to voice their political opinion, will lose.
New reporting and compliance requirements would be forced on groups who comment on legislation if they even mention an elected official. The law also extends disclaimer and disclosure requirements from simply applying to traditional radio and TV ads to also include an organization’s website and even social media posts. According to a former chair of the Federal Elections Commission, “Groups that speak would likely have to hire an attorney, and a good one.”
Even if your group can manage the complex compliance requirements or can afford an attorney, these new regulations will still take time and money from your advocacy efforts. Whether your group is a local transgender rights group who wants to comdemn a politician who criticized drag queen story hour or a local pro-life organization who wants to praise sanctuary-city legislation, you might think twice before you say anything if it’s going to mean paying a lawyer and a filing a bunch of paperwork.
New hurdles will impact groups of any party affiliation, and small organizations will be hardest hit — especially if you’re a nonprofit on a shoestring budget with volunteers who aren’t well-versed in navigating legal hurdles. Unless your group is well-funded and well-represented, you’ll likely speak less often, if at all.
Those who already have a voice — especially incumbent politicians and traditional media commentators — will be free to continue to voice their views, but with less opposition if HR1 becomes law.
They don’t have to “cancel” you if they can prevent you from speaking in the first place.
A preeminent feature of HR1 is that it eliminates so-called “Dark Money.” Dark money refers to a category of spending and political activity that has been private since the nation’s inception and was enshrined by a 1958 Supreme Court decision which protected the names of NAACP members from the state of Alabama. While campaign contributions are already a matter of public record, donations to groups educating or advocating for a policy position — think donations to a group educating the public about immigration reform matters or even your membership dues in a pro-police organization — are currently a private matter. HR1 would end that privacy.
If HR1 becomes law, these types of donations and political affiliations would be a matter of public record. Once this information is public, doxxing goes mainstream. Doxxing is the practice of publishing someone’s private information in order to shame or harass them, and it’s becoming increasingly common. Last week a police lieutenant was fired when a website was hacked and it was revealed that the officer had donated to the legal defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, accused of killing two people during a riot in Wisconsin last summer. But doxxing’s victims are not exclusively on the right. As far back as 2013, even Michelle Obama complained of being doxxed. If HR1 becomes law, would-be doxxers no longer have to hack a website in order to publish your private information. All your political associations will be a matter of public record.
Contrary to popular rhetoric, so-called dark money is more prevalent on the left than on the right. According to OpenSecrets.org, Democrats spent four times more dark money than Republicans in the run up to the 2020 elections.
Why would Democrats seek to end this lucrative source of support? Perhaps they believe Republican supporters are the only ones who will be doxxed. More likely, those already in power value controlling the narrative even more than having your donation. After all, those who are already elected to public office have an easier time raising money than the upstarts. They have less cause to be concerned with sourcing their support.
The lack of privacy for would-be supporters will intimidate people, and the outcome will be less political engagement.
Is it really worth it to support a group you care about if you might get doxxed?
HR1 provides a mechanism for matching campaign contributions of up to $200 with a sixfold contribution from the government. Touted as a means to allow newcomers access to the system, the more likely outcome is a financial windfall for incumbent politicians. Under this scheme, a $200 campaign contribution will suddenly become $1,400. But who will find it easiest to bring in the initial donations? Incumbents who have name ID can tap into networks of existing supporters and can already point to their “accomplishments.” Similarly, candidates with existing support groups like union affiliations could quickly turn those associates into a network of donors.
In addition to the taxpayer-funded benefit HR1 provides to the well-connected, it also turns local elections into national contests. The matching provisions of HR1 are not restricted to donors from the candidate’s district. Anyone across the country can donate and have their funds matched. Expanding the donor pool outside a politician’s district will make politicians less accountable to their own constituents and more likely to take positions that will draw national attention. The local constituent’s voice gets smaller as the outside money gets bigger.
In addition to concerns that government-funded campaigns force taxpayers to support ideas and candidates which might be anathema to them, the real effect of this law will be more funding — from the government, no less — flowing to those who need it least. The playing field slants even more in favor of the well-connected.
The real impact of HR1 would be to add burdens, intimidation, and barriers to political engagement for the average citizen. Maybe the labyrinthine and confusing regulations convince you it’s just not worth it to speak out. Or perhaps the threat of losing your job because of your membership in an unpopular group convinces you to stay on the sidelines. Or possibly you just can’t raise enough money to wage a fair fight against an incumbent who has a built-in mailing list. No matter how you slice it, the campaign finance changes in the For the People Act will make it harder for the people, left or right, to be involved politically.