WASHINGTON – Sens. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Marco Rubio of Florida are teaming up on a bill aimed at bolstering protections for U.S. elections against foreign interference.
Van Hollen, a Democrat, and Rubio, a Republican, introduced the “Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act of 2018” (DETER Act) in mid-January amidst warnings from the U.S. intelligence community that Russia will try to interfere with the 2018 midterm election as it did in the 2016 presidential election.
The bipartisan measure would impose harsh sanctions on foreign entities that attempt to influence federal elections in the United States. The bill includes Russia-specific sanctions, including severe economic penalties and travel bans on “any senior foreign political figure or oligarch in the Russian Federation.”
“We’ve spent the last year focusing on what happened in the 2016 election – Russian interference,” Van Hollen said in an interview with MSNBC. “We have to hold people accountable. We have to learn lessons.”
“These sanctions are far, far stronger than any action taken to date with respect to Russia, and the DETER Act conveys to Putin and others in Moscow in unequivocal terms that the United States will not tolerate attacks on our democracy,” Van Hollen said in a statement when the bill was introduced. “One principle that should bring us all together – Democrats and Republicans alike, and, in fact, Americans regardless of political party or political stripe – is that we should protect our democratic process.”
“We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” Rubio said in a statement. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”
The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, and an identical bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida.
“Were I in the Senate, I’d be supporting that legislation,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the Van Hollen-Rubio measure. There are no cosponsors so far in the Senate.
Beyond the proposed legislation, Maryland representatives have called for election reform and more investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“America has been left vulnerable to malign Russian efforts,” Sen. Ben Cardin said in a statement in February. “Congress must take all necessary steps to protect the independence of the special counsel and the Justice Department so that this investigation can reach its conclusion no matter where it leads. No one – no matter how powerful – is above the law.”
The Van Hollen-Rubio bill came just a month before Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for attempting to influence American voters against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Russian active measures against the U.S. are not new, and their principal purpose is to sow discord in our society,” Rubio said following the indictment. “Vladimir Putin is neither a Democrat nor a Republican – this is not a partisan issue, and we cannot allow a foreign country to actively interfere in our political dialogue and divide us as a nation against each other.”
The legislation’s proposed sanctions impact “major sectors of the Russian economy, including finance, energy, defense, and metals and mining,” in addition to blacklisting Russian political figures, according to a statement released by Van Hollen’s office.
“Russia is not the only foreign power capable of waging a cyber war on our democracy,” Van Hollen said in a January Senate floor speech. “We should expect other hostile actors will seek to undermine our democratic system as well.”
Van Hollen said the DETER ACT sends “an unequivocal message” to foreign actors, particularly Russia, looking to interfere with United States elections: “if you attack us, the consequences will be severe.”
While the bill clearly outlines repercussions for future Russian interference, it does not specify specific penalties for other foreign actors. Instead, it includes steps the president should take to propose future sanctions on China, Iran, North Korea and other potential threats in the event of interference.
China, Iran and North Korea were included with Russia in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community” in 2017. All four countries were declared “cyber threat actors” by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, and the DETER ACT further establishes them as potential threats.
Less than a week before the Van Hollen-Rubio bill was introduced, Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, released a report that concluded the United States has no “coherent, comprehensive and coordinated approach” to the threat of foreign influence in elections.
The report suggested 10 steps for preventing future interference, and blamed the “lack of presidential leadership in addressing the threat Putin poses.”
Russian interference in the 2016 election has inspired multiple bills.
The Protecting Our Democracy Act, introduced by Rep. Cummings, D-Baltimore, and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, in December 2016, garnered 194 signatures on a discharge petition, including all members of the House Democratic leadership. The bill sought to establish an independent commission to investigate Russia and its ties to the 2016 election and the Trump campaign, but the measure was never taken up.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, introduced the bipartisan Secure Elections Act in December 2017. The bill has five additional co-sponsors, but some analysts believe that, while such bills deal with protecting United States elections, they do little to deter future foreign actors, and fail to determine consequences for future interference.
While Lankford’s proposal “is a necessary component of election security, more work obviously needs to be done,” said Michael Sulmeyer, director of the Belfer Center’s Cyber Security Project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
In February, Sens. Cardin, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, introduced a Senate resolution calling for President Donald Trump to implement sanctions against Russia.
The “lack of action by the Trump administration is a clear signal to Vladimir Putin that he can continue his destabilizing behavior against the United States, our interests and our allies,” Cardin said. “The lack of seriousness shown by the administration in the face of a clear national security threat and even clearer congressional intent is alarming and cannot continue.”