A bill requiring political campaigns to report any foreign attempts at election interference passed the House last week with only Democratic votes. The bill, like similar recent House measures, is dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate. It’s nonetheless worth examining because of what it says about GOP dysfunction today.
Even amid impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump for allegedly using U.S. military aid to leverage foreign assistance in his reelection campaign, congressional Republicans still don’t seem to get it: Foreign election interference isn’t some contrived partisan issue against which they must circle the wagons; it’s a real threat to America’s democracy, and it requires a real response.
There is no debate that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, seeking to boost Trump’s prospects over Hillary Clinton, whom the Kremlin considered the more problematic adversary. The interference included bot-driven social media operations and fake media reports. Trump regularly tries to obfuscate that fact, but it’s been the conclusion of every major U.S. intelligence assessment, as well as a recent report by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee.
It’s similarly undebatable that, during the 2016 campaign, Russian operatives contacted the Trump campaign offering what they said was political dirt on Clinton. The campaign responded not by alerting authorities, but by setting a meeting with Trump’s son and others in Trump Tower. The promised dirt didn’t materialize, but even taking the meeting was shady enough that Trump himself later dictated a public lie claiming it was about child adoptions. None of this is disputed.
Intelligence experts say there is no question Russia is gearing up to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections. It’s a depressing sign of our times that candidates (let alone a president) would have to be told to call the FBI if a foreign government contacts them, but that’s where we are. Given the Trump campaign’s behavior last time — behavior that included Trump publicly inviting Russia to interfere by hacking Clinton’s email accounts, which it did that very day — some new rules of the road are necessary.
The House bill passed last week attempts to set those rules. It would require campaigns to report offers of campaign help from foreign governments, which is the very definition of common sense. The measure would also put paid online political ads under the same restrictions as radio and television ads, an idea that has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and others as potentially chilling to open political dialogue.
Those concerns could be addressed by amending the legislation — but that’s not what Republicans are doing. In the House, they opposed the entire bill, and all indications are that Senate Republican leadership won’t even call it. It’s the third time this year the GOP has effectively killed election-security legislation. Voters next year should be asking why.