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Democrats' Election Reform Bill Takes Aim At 'Dark Money'


A final vote is expected in the House tomorrow on H.R. 1. That's the Democrats' all-in-one bill to strengthen voting rights, government ethics and controls on political money. One provision would end the secrecy that shields some big political donors, and that raises a possible dilemma for Democrats as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: California Democrat Zoe Lofgren is managing H.R. 1 on the House floor. She opened the debate by describing all the changes the bill would bring, including this one.


ZOE LOFGREN: This legislation will shine a light on dark secret money that influences campaigns, and it will protect everyone's right to know who is influencing their votes and their views.

OVERBY: Dark money, it's the money big donors give to nonprofit organizations. The rules of campaign finance law don't apply here, so the contributions are uncapped, the donors' names are secret and the ads are negative - like these.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Three-hundred-thousand North Dakotans have pre-existing conditions. Kevin Cramer sold them out to the special interest.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Scandals and corruption - Matt Rosendale would make Washington worse.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #3: Golden boy Josh Hawley, he thinks he can get away with anything.

OVERBY: So here's the dilemma. Democrats have been trying to stop dark money for almost a decade. But these ads came from a liberal group, Majority Forward. Its mission is to support Democratic Senate candidates. And in last year's elections, Majority Forward was the top-spending dark money group. This was the first cycle in which pro-Democratic groups had more money than pro-Republican groups. Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One, a group working to strengthen ethics, campaign finance and election laws.

MEREDITH MCGEHEE: I think there's a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party when it comes to dark money.

OVERBY: Every House Democrat has signed up as a co-sponsor of H.R. 1, but not all of them are eager to shut down the dark money groups.

MCGEHEE: You always have to be careful when you count the numbers because the Democratic majority - as was shown in the race for speaker with Nancy Pelosi - it rests on a very narrow margin.

OVERBY: Stopping dark money is an easy issue for progressives, who tend to come from safe districts. But moderates aren't so eager to wipe out moneyed groups that can help them get re-elected in close races. Republicans have an easier time. They frame dark money as a First Amendment, free speech issue. The disclosure would apply to donors of more than $10,000. Republicans argue that if they're publicly identified, they would stop giving or even face violence. Here's Ohio Republican Jim Jordan on the floor yesterday.


JIM JORDAN: Everyday Americans will continue to receive death threats, mail containing white powder all because someone disagrees with what they believe.

OVERBY: But it seems clear that H.R. 1 won't become law - at least not this year. The Senate probably won't even vote on it. Democrats see H.R. 1 as a first big take on legislation in future years. Meanwhile, with President Trump on the ballot next year, it's unlikely the pro-Democratic dark money groups will be able to keep their financial advantage.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.