President Biden should urge passage of the For the People Act in his first State of the Union
by Michelle Chan, vice president of programs
As our country faces a pandemic, an economic depression, a reckoning with racial justice, and a climate crisis, President Biden has the opportunity to use his first address to Congress to chart a new path forward. But to begin this journey, and to make meaningful progress on any of these issues, we need a fully functioning democracy.
Indeed, progress on every issue that Friends of the Earth works on – from climate change, to sustainable farming, to the clean-up of toxic waste – has been and will be hampered without fundamental reforms to our political system. And our democracy is deeply damaged.
In the last four years, we have witnessed historic levels of corruption at the highest levels of government, the dangerous erosion of democratic norms and even an attempted coup in our nation’s Capitol. These threats have come on top of decades of other antidemocratic developments — in the courts, in our states, in the halls of Congress and within political campaigns – that have steadily disenfranchised millions of voters, particularly people of color.
In the last election cycle, we saw unprecedented voter suppression tactics (including attacks on the US Postal Service) along with widespread, baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud. Yet despite these suppression efforts, and in the face of a deadly pandemic, people turned out in record numbers to vote. Now, according to the Brennan Center, some 33 states have responded by introducing or pre-filing 165 bills to restrict voting – a four fold increase from last year.
These voter suppression efforts not only have inordinate consequences for BIPOC communities, but they also harm the planet. For example, in Eastern North Carolina, where Friends of the Earth works, communities of color not only bear the brunt of industrial and agricultural pollution, but they are also on the front lines of climate chaos and are hit first and worst by hurricanes and severe storms. Voter suppression, in particular partisan and racial gerrymandering, has fundamentally undermined environmental justice communities’ ability to elect public officials who represent and fight for their concerns. Ensuring fair representation in the political process is critical to helping communities combat pollution and create climate-resilient futures.
In 2019, Congress made a huge first step towards repairing our democracy when the House of Representatives passed HR1, the For the People Act. This is a landmark democracy reform package that will expand and protect voting rights for all, end partisan and racial gerrymandering, get dark money out of politics, and restore transparency and accountability in our government.
Today, the current House and Senate have both made the For the People Act (HR1 and S1) a top legislative priority, with a vote scheduled in the House for the first week of March. Now we need President Biden to use his bully pulpit – in particular his first address to Congress — to express his commitment to democracy reform and to champion HR1/ S1.
We need a political system where all voices can be heard; where the public interest, not special interests, guide decision-making; and where the people can put faith in their leaders to do the right thing for the country. Our planet depends on it.