Sarbanes Prepares for Elevated Role as Leading Reformer in Congress

Official photo of the congressman
 U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes  

As Democrats push to retake the U.S. House of Representatives in November, government ethics and political reform have become an increasingly important part of their message. And that means an elevated role for Maryland Congressman John P. Sarbanes (D). Sarbanes is House Democrats’ apostle of political reform, the chairman of the Democracy Reform Task Force. He’s the architect of the party’s multi-pronged good government agenda. If the Democrats seize the majority, he will play a leading role in shaping the suite of reform bills that Democrats will try to advance through Congress. “I’m focused on trying to map out what a reform package would look like,” Sarbanes said in a recent interview in the Capitol, a few steps away from the House chamber, where votes were taking place.

With multiple scandals swirling around the Trump administration, and with two House Republicans recently indicted on corruption charges – Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California – Democrats believe that a broken political system and GOP malfeasance specifically are potent political weapons. Democrats on Tuesday released a list of what they’re characterizing as 600 GOP-related scandals.

“The American people need to see that we’re serious and that we understand the scope of our challenges,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said during a speech in Washington, D.C., last week. “If Democrats can fix government, we can earn the trust of voters to lead on addressing health care and infrastructure and the other challenges before us.”

Sarbanes sees corruption in Washington, D.C., as the leading culprit of citizen dismay and disengagement in the political process. It’s hard for voters to have any faith in their leaders, he says, when oil and gas companies, the pharmaceutical industry, corporate polluters and the financial giants are perceived as having so much sway on Capitol Hill. “People are desperately cynical about what Washington is paying attention to, thinking we just hang out with lobbyists at parties,” he said.

House Democrats are discussing introducing as many as 15 pieces of reform legislation during the next Congress – or perhaps rolling them into one robust package – and bringing them to the House floor within 100 days if they have the majority. The highlights include:

  • Voting rights and voter empowerment. The Democrats would attempt to mandate universal automatic voter registration; strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which has been weakened by recent Supreme Court decisions; end gerrymandering; and secure voting systems to protect them from hackers and ensure accurate counts.     
  • Ethics and accountability – or as Sarbanes calls it: “Behave yourself in D.C.” That includes strengthening government ethics agencies and oversight of lawmakers and lobbyists.
  • Campaign finance reform – centered around a new public financing system for congressional elections and trying to undo the Citizen United Supreme Court ruling that led to unlimited and largely untraceable spending on political elections. Sarbanes estimates that a public financing system would cost about $500 million a year. But, he points out, that’s about a tenth of the federal subsidies that the oil and gas industry receives annually. “It’s real money,” he said, “but it’s a relatively small investment to ransom back your government that’s been taken hostage.”

Sarbanes concedes that even if Democrats retake the House, the push for reform could take a few years. Any reform package that House Democrats pass would likely be blocked in a Republican-led Senate. And on the off-chance that Democrats flip control of the Senate this year, President Trump is unlikely to sign any good government legislation.

But Sarbanes believes a solid collection of reform bills will appeal to voters – and can serve as a template that Democratic presidential candidates can use against Trump during the 2020 White House election. “I would love to gather all that up, hand it to the American people, and say, ‘You deliver the verdict on this president,’” he said.

Sarbanes is the lone Marylander on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a powerhouse panel that oversees enormous sectors of the U.S. economy, including energy, health care and telecommunications. Sarbanes sees the push for political reform dovetailing with the Democrats’ agenda for Energy and Commerce, with more emphasis on policies that improve the lives of average citizens, rather than the corporate bottom line.

Sarbanes also serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where many of the investigations of the Trump administration will originate, if the Democrats take over. The top Democrat on that panel is Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, and he’s all but certain to take the gavel if Democrats are back in the majority.

Sarbanes, age 56, was elected to Congress in 2006, just as Democrats were taking control after a dozen years in the minority. He sees parallels between that period and then. In their first two years back in the majority, Democrats were able to build a case against President George W. Bush’s record, which helped build a narrative for the 2008 White House election.

Regardless of whether the Democrats pick up the 23 House seats they need in November to win the majority, they could face an internal leadership fight. Several Democratic candidates, and even some incumbents, are suggesting that it’s time for 78-year-old House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to move on. That could also impact Hoyer and the third-ranking House Democrat, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn. Like Pelosi, they are in their late 70s.

Sarbanes said he expects the trio to try to remain in their posts. “There’s obviously a lot of discussions about changes in leadership,” he said. “I think all of those three understand that they need to be presenting a plan for the future of leadership.”

But Sarbanes said he and his colleagues are reluctant to discuss these potential internal battles seven weeks ahead of Election Day. “I agree with the line that we just need to win the election first,” he said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

The voters, Sarbanes asserted, will have to do their part if the country is to turn away from the policies and priorities of Trump. “Voting Democratic in this year’s election isn’t just a partisan thing,” he said. “It’s a patriotic thing.” 

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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