In The News

March 15, 2021

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rules threaten not only President Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda but also democracy itself. With the upper chamber split 50-50, the requirement means that most legislation effectively needs 60 votes to pass. And that means Republicans can block the Democrats from raising the minimum wage, rebuilding our infrastructure and reforming immigration. More important, the GOP can keep Congress from stopping Republicans’ aggressive efforts in state legislatures across the country to make it harder to vote. The barely disguised purpose of these legislative efforts is to disenfranchise African Americans and other Democratic constituencies. It risks enthroning minority rule and a Trumpist agenda in Congress, beginning with the 2022 midterms and for years to come. Given such stakes, it’s gratifying that there’s a growing movement within the Senate to weaken the filibuster and eliminate it in some cases — such as to protect voting rights and perhaps make the District a state.... The four senators from our region, all Democrats, support the reform efforts, albeit to varying degrees and with an emphasis on moving cautiously. Their views offer a snapshot of the range of Senate Democrats’ positions on this pivotal issue.... That’s a welcome sign for Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), lead sponsor of the “For the People Act,” or H.R. 1, a sweeping measure aimed in large part at blocking GOP efforts to suppress voting. Among other things, it establishes no-excuse absentee voting and guarantees 15 days of early voting nationwide. The House passed it March 3, but it will surely die in the Senate without filibuster reform. “It’s going to require [Senate] Democrats to reevaluate the rules and look at how they can be adjusted in order to allow critical legislation such as H.R. 1 to pass with a simple majority,” Sarbanes said. If that’s what it takes to protect representative democracy at a time when it’s under attack, then so be it.

March 12, 2021

After Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program last year, pumping billions of dollars into small businesses struggling under the weight of the pandemic, reports surfaced that sizable chunks of that money went right back into the pockets of Congress. A slew of members, many of them already wealthy, received millions in federal aid for their personal businesses ventures under the auspices of job-saving. That reanimated debate about a longstanding, conflict of interest entrenched within the legislative branch: Members of Congress can hold positions in for-profit corporations while officially serving their constituents in Washington. Senate ethics rules address this conflict —but the House does not.... Currently, a significant pressure campaign — both within and outside Congress — is demanding greater accountability and transparency in the legislature. One major step forward is contained within H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, an omnibus political reform bill which, among other things, would overhaul campaign finance and ethical rules for both the Senate and the House. “H.R. 1 will set a new tone in Washington and usher in an era of greater political transparency and accountability,” sponsor Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., told Salon. “It will help ensure that members of Congress put the public interest first — not their personal financial interests or wealthy and well-connected special interests. Chief among these new ethical standards will be a ban that precludes members of Congress from serving on for-profit boards....” While the bill is decidedly imperfect, it has strong support from law and public policy organizations, which have hailed it as a solid first step. “Historically, Congress has exempted itself from a fair number of ethics and accountability and transparency laws that it's applied to the executive branch,” said Martha Kinsella, counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. “For instance, Congress is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. There has been some movement over the years to change that double standard, and the ethics provisions in H.R. 1 are a big step forward.”

March 11, 2021

Maryland congressional leaders announced a working group that will consider establishing a National Recreation Area for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The recreation area would be managed by the National Park Service, which proponents say would bring in additional resources for conservation and recreation to the bay area. It could be anchored by a new visitor center, for instance, said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who will lead the working group alongside Rep. John Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats. “Just as you go to other national parks, you have the visitor center,” Van Hollen said. “It’s sort of a central place where people can come to learn more about the bay — both the ecology of the bay and the history of the bay.” The working group will “collaborate over the coming months to consider legislation that would designate the National Recreation Area and release it for public comment,” according to a news release from Van Hollen’s office. The group also includes Maryland and Virginia lawmakers and officials, plus representatives from environmental groups, sportfishing and commercial fishing groups and educational organizations.... The idea has been tossed around for years. In 2004, for instance, the National Park Service conducted a study evaluating possible paths forward for the Gateways program, and the possibility of establishing a Chesapeake Bay national park. Last year, in a letter to Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan voiced his support for the recreation area. “A Chesapeake Bay National Recreation Area would provide an incredible opportunity to showcase Maryland’s significant cultural, environmental, historical and natural resources, and provide an international platform for the State of Maryland and the broader Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Hogan wrote in his letter.

March 10, 2021

A $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that Congress passed Wednesday contains an “unprecedented” level of funding for Baltimore and other Maryland cities and counties that have been clamoring for help after seeing revenues plunge because of the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers said.... The American Rescue Plan, which the House approved 220-211 Wednesday, was Democratic President Joe Biden’s first major initiative since taking office Jan. 20. Biden had vowed to “set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.” He planned to sign the bill Friday.... The bill expands child tax and Earned Income Tax Credits, sends many Americans direct payments, extends a $300 weekly unemployment supplemental benefit and provides new support for restaurants and other small business. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the measure “will help put money in people’s pockets, keep roofs over heads, place food on kitchen tables, bring millions of children out of poverty, extend unemployment benefits to laid-off workers, support small businesses, increase access to affordable health insurance, expand child care and allow our schools to safely reopen....” Baltimore will get about $670 million in direct support, while the state will independently receive about $4 billion, according to Cardin and Van Hollen. Separately, Maryland counties will share $1.1 billion in aid, and state municipalities will split a similar sum.... The package will allow families a larger child tax credit, a change expected to lift 52,000 Maryland children out of poverty, according to estimates by the Maryland senators and their staffs.

March 10, 2021

This past weekend marked the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, when voting rights marchers were brutally assaulted by law enforcement officers while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Broadcast on national television, images of state troopers attacking peaceful demonstrators, including John Lewis, a civil rights icon who went on to become a long-serving Democratic congressman from Georgia, shifted public opinion and galvanized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). This year's commemoration — the first since Lewis's death last year from cancer — took place as many state legislatures are ramping up an assault on voting rights.... As Republican state lawmakers scramble to limit voting, congressional Democrats and voting rights advocates are going on the offensive to protect and expand access to the ballot box. Last week the U.S. House passed the For the People Act (H.R. 1), which Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, called "the most significant democracy reform legislation in at least half a century" and "the next great civil rights bill."  It passed the chamber despite unanimous Republican opposition. Sponsored by Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, H.R. 1 includes provisions to strengthen the VRA, expand voting by mail, overhaul the campaign finance system by requiring full disclosure of donors and contributions, increase election security by modernizing state election systems, end gerrymandering, and make the democratic process more inclusive. "We're not pursuing this reform against the backdrop of the status quo," Sarbanes told ABC News. "We're pursuing it against the prospect that the Republicans will take things in the wrong direction, and in a significant way." Senate Democrats plan to move the bill forward, but their Republican colleagues have committed to fight with every tool available — including the filibuster, which was also used by Southern segregationists trying to block multiple civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s. Consequently, Democrats are now discussing filibuster reforms, with even conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia saying he's open to some changes.

March 8, 2021

This state has been using phony fears of voter fraud for years to mask official efforts to limit voting, especially among people of color. Other states seem eager to catch up. Some efforts are more brazen than others. In Georgia, for example, Trump devotees are seeking to outlaw Sunday voting, knowing that voting on Sunday after church is an African American tradition.... Democrats in Texas and other states have filed bills to offset some of these voter restrictions — but chances they will pass, especially here in Texas, are slim. The better remedy may well be to count on the feds. The U.S. House passed H.R. 1, also known as the “For the People Act,” sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md. Among other provisions, H.R. 1 would restore many of the protections included in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, protections gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.... Those sweeping changes deserve robust debate in the Senate — and senators must be ready to look for compromise. The alternative is to let the Trump-inspired hordes in statehouses across the country, including our own in Austin, make war on the bedrock right that makes America the nation it is: the right to show up, stare down intimidation, and choose our own leaders. That’s exactly what more than 160 million Americans did four months ago. The losers can’t be allowed to change the rules now that they have seen what happens when American voters are inspired to show up and cast ballots.

March 5, 2021

CNN's Don Lemon speaks to Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) about HR 1, a sweeping government, ethics and election bill that, among other things, would counter state-level Republican efforts to restrict voting access, which was just passed in the Democratic-led House.

CNN's Don Lemon and Congressman Sarbanes Video Player

March 5, 2021

There has always something essentially quixotic in Rep. John Sarbanes’ “For The People Act,” its title as idealistic as anything found on its nearly 800 pages of content. In sum, what H.R.1 attempts to do is fix much of what is broken in this nation’s election system, chiefly by making voting more accessible, ending partisan redistricting, raising ethical standards, and exposing and reducing the influence of big money in politics. Americans should be celebrating its passage in the U.S. House of Representatives late Wednesday and giving thanks to the 58-year-old Maryland Democrat, the eldest son of the late Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who has made this worthy cause a personal crusade. Don Quixote may have tilted at windmills, but John Sarbanes went after something real and far more daunting: a political system that runs on money and disenfranchises far too many Americans. Yet, this remarkable achievement has, unfortunately, if predictably, fallen into partisan tooth gnashing and gross over-simplification. Republicans have reduced these sweeping reforms to one unifying idea — that it’s a reckless power grab by Democrats.... There is an undeniable public good in removing barriers to voting and establishing national voting rights standards. No-excuse mail voting, early voting, automatic voter registration, returning rights to felons who have served their time, these have broad societal benefits. And, as the last election demonstrated (and was confirmed by dozens of legal challenges), they do not give rise to rampant voter fraud.... Granted, democracy is difficult. Politics are tough. But if Republicans are going to continue to look at the last election as some kind of scandal because so many more Americans were able to participate or, worse, make outrageous and false claims about fraudulent voting schemes (the kind that some people take seriously enough to stage an assault on our most sacred temple to democracy), they are going to encounter a lot worse problems than how their own congressional districts are drawn. Mr. Sarbanes may not defeat any ferocious giants on this day, but perhaps he will inspire others to take up the worthy cause of voting rights. They are certainly plenty of state houses where these essential democratic ideas are under attack from those who would benefit from turning back the clock and returning (or retaining) power among the privileged.

March 4, 2021

On Wednesday night, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, the most sweeping set of democratic reforms since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and an effort to fortify our democratic system after the turbulence of the past six months. H.R. 1’s passage sets up a clash in the U.S. Senate where the bill stands little chance of passage without amending or removing the filibuster, an anti-democratic relic of the Jim Crow era that gives a minority of senators the power to block most legislation. Unless Senate Democrats reform the filibuster, H.R. 1 is dead on arrival, and the best hope for repairing and improving our democracy dies with it. At the same time, Republican lawmakers in state capitals across the nation are introducing hundreds of bills to restrict the right to vote, using former President Donald Trump’s lie about a stolen election as a rallying cry and as political cover. This wave of legislation, experts say, will disproportionately restrict access to the ballot box for young, black, and brown voters — the most reliable voting blocs for the Democratic Party.... The stakes of this moment aren’t lost on those leading the push for reform. “This is not a matter of ‘we can do it now or later,’” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), one of the architects of H.R. 1, tells Rolling Stone. “If we don’t do it now, there may not be a later....” Rep. John Sarbanes says it’s no coincidence that for two sessions in a row House Democrats chose the For the People Act as their symbolic first bill: H.R. 1.... “The legislation is much the same as it was [in 2019] because we built it pretty carefully to respond to the grievances we heard from people out there,” Sarbanes says. But after the January 6th attack and the attempt to thwart the 2020 election outcome, he adds, “I think the appetite in the country for this kind of change is even broader and deeper than it was two years ago.” In 2019, every single House Democrat voted in favor of H.R. 1; the same happened again on Wednesday evening. This time, however, the commander-in-chief is also a supporter of the bill, with the Biden administration saying in a statement that H.R. 1 was “urgently needed.” But yet again, H.R. 1 faces a likely demise in the Senate. With only 50 members, Senate Democrats lack the votes to overcome a filibuster of any non-budget-related bills — and their Republican counterparts have made plenty clear they plan to filibuster H.R. 1 to death.... None of those reforms can happen with the filibuster intact. Rep. Sarbanes, the H.R. 1 architect, told me he understands this. Democrats, he says, should look at “every possible consideration for how we can get this thing over the finish line.” “I think the public wants to see this,” he told me. “And if we don’t deliver that, what are we saying to people across the country who feel so desperate right now? This is a moment of truth for lawmakers and our democracy.”

March 4, 2021

The U.S. House passed sweeping voting rights, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics reform, late Wednesday night along party lines in a 220 to 210 vote, but the historic package will face an uphill battle in the Senate as no Republicans currently support the bill. Even though Democrats control Congress and the White House, their slim majority in a 50-50 Senate is not enough to enact into law a massive package that tackles dark money in campaigns, voter suppression and election security that requires 60 votes rather than a simple majority. The push to end or reform the Senate filibuster is growing among Democrats who are aiming to get the package on President Joe Biden’s desk in the hopes that some of those changes can be enacted before midterm and gubernatorial races in 2022. “I’m not optimistic on the Senate side,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the architect of the bill said during a Tuesday press conference, arguing that with the filibuster in place it’s unlikely that 10 Senate Republicans would vote on the bill. However, Sarbanes said he’s optimistic that Senate Democrats can find a way around the filibuster and pass the bill with a simple majority. “I will say that I’m attracted to the argument that you’re hearing increasingly made, which is that when it comes to something as fundamental as restoring majority rule in America, which is, I think, what H.R. 1 is seeking to do, it would be jarring and incongruous to subject that reform to a supermajority requirement,” he said.... The package aims to increase voter turnout by restoring voting rights to those with a felony record, expanding early voting and same-day voter registration, getting rid of ID requirements and requiring states to set up automatic voter registration for eligible voters for federal elections. The Biden administration is supportive of the bill. “In the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy, a never before seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people, and a newly aggressive attack on voting rights taking place right now all across the country, this landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen American democracy,” the administration said in a statement....  Sarbanes also argued that the package would help restore faith in democracy for Americans after baseless conspiracy theories of voter fraud and election irregularities were spread by the former president and many Republicans. Multiple reports from the Department of Justice and FBI found that last year’s elections were secure and there was no evidence of voter fraud. “This is not controversial,” Sarbanes said about the bill. “We’re just trying to create some baseline, universal standards so people can get to the ballot box....” A section of the bill sets up a federal public financing program for people running for Congress, which uses money from criminal and civil penalties and settlements from corporations, corporate officers or tax code violators in the top income brackets, to match small donations.... Sarbanes said this program was included in the bill in the hopes that it allows people from different financial backgrounds to run for office.