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Why Did Senate Democrats Strip Ethics Reform From Their Voting Rights Bill?

The upper chamber’s alternative to the For the People Act does not include any of that bill’s safeguards against the abuses of the Trump era.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin stands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The scope and ambition of any Democratic voting rights bill are, at this point, academic: As long as the filibuster is in place, almost any effort to protect the right to vote from authoritarian-minded Republicans is doomed to die in the Senate. Both measures that have already passed the House of Representatives have met that fate.  But hope springs eternal. Earlier this week, Senate Democrats unveiled their stab at a voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. 

Endorsed by Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who relishes his ability to hold up whatever legislation he chooses, the bill is, in some ways, an improvement on the For the People Act, which passed the House in early March. For starters, Manchin vocally opposed that bill, so anything that might pass muster with him has a slightly better chance of passing. The new bill also takes the nationwide effort of GOP-controlled state legislatures to further restrict the right to vote into account in ways that the For the People Act, which passed when these voter suppression efforts were still in their infancy, did not. Nevertheless, there have been some fairly hefty compromises made in the creation of the Freedom to Vote Act, none of which necessarily guarantee that 10 Republicans will support the measure. 

And some of the compromises are rather surprising. One of the bill’s defining attributes is that the ethics safeguards included in the For the People Act have been stripped out. For observers who keenly remember the way the Trump administration routinely abused government ethics, this is disheartening. As The Nation’s Elie Mystal wrote, “Unfortunately, Democrats can’t seem to improve something without ruining another thing in the name of compromise.” And yet to secure all 50 Democratic votes, it seems that jettisoning these crucial ethics provisions was deemed necessary. 

“The response to the Nixon administration was sweeping ethics reform,” Walter Shaub, who served as the director of the Office of Government Ethics during Barack Obama’s second term, told The New Republic. “We just had four years that were worse than Nixon. The response was to gut the ethics provision that made it through the House? That’s appalling, and it’s an insult to Americans who made it through the Trump years.” 

Those ethics reforms, as Shaub outlined in a Twitter thread on Tuesday, include a number of provisions aimed at preventing the corruption and wanton abuse of power that was so prevalent in the Trump era. They would require presidential and vice-presidential candidates to disclose a decade’s worth of tax filings; prevent presidents from spending federal funds at businesses they, their families, and Cabinet members own; and empower the Office of Government Ethics to meaningfully investigate public officials, including the president and vice president. They take aim at the insane nepotism we witnessed during the Trump years and end the practice of providing federal contracts to businesses owned by the president or vice president. All of these measures are gone, for the sake of earning the support of a tiny minority of Senate Democrats, possibly only Joe Manchin himself. 

The new bill is not without its own unique merits. It goes to great lengths to protect election workers from harassment and intimidation and to prevent states from blocking people from providing food and water to voters waiting in extraordinarily long lines. It also mandates the counting of provisional ballots cast by voters in the wrong precinct, as long as they were in the correct county. Perhaps most importantly, it guarantees the right to vote and blocks states from enacting any measure that makes casting a ballot more difficult. “Put simply, if the new bill is enacted, more citizens will be able to register to vote, vote in person and by mail and have their votes counted,” attorney and election law expert Marc Elias wrote.

Shaub concurs that these elements of the bill are worthy inclusions. “I am heartened by the ways that the Freedom to Vote Act is a better voting rights bill than the For the People Act,” he said. But many of the ethics provisions were broadly popular and offered proponents the chance to build support for the Freedom to Vote Act’s passage among the public.

Shaub says that he’s “furious that the ethics provisions were set aside for no other reason than that someone on the Democratic side took [them] out” as the cost of doing business. “That they needlessly dropped the government ethics to appease someone on their side of the aisle, whether it was Manchin or someone else, is shameful,” Shaub told The New Republic. 

The White House has been silent on this matter, despite the fact that President Joe Biden campaigned heavily on ethics reform in 2020. Shaub chalks this up to complacency: “They’re happy with [the status quo] and seem to think that before Trump everything was working fine,” he said. “But Trump didn’t create the weaknesses, he merely exploited them. This is a case of the entrenched powers that be on both sides of the aisle liking the system the way it is. They don’t want to change it. They’re naïve to the threat to democracy.” 

Again, it’s not likely that any voting rights measure will make it to Biden’s desk unless Democrats do away with the filibuster or create some exclusive-to-voting-rights carve-out in the rules to pass the bill without Republican support. The provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act must pass in order to help salvage the right to vote; compromises may be vital to keep hopes aloft. But the stripping away of the ethics provisions is particularly troubling, in that it suggests that Democrats are not seriously contemplating the need to protect the country from the next Trump—or perhaps from Trump himself. 

“We are at a point where democracy is either going to die or be threatened another day,” Shaub said. Senate Democrats “need to take this seriously and ask themselves why they even bothered to run for Congress if they can’t do this. This is one of those struggles where a near miss counts for nothing. This isn’t horseshoes or hand grenades. This is about the survival of the republic. If you’re not up for that, you may as well have never come to Washington in the first place.”