“The rise of a U.S. president who fashions himself a strongman in the model of autocrats around the world has been a wakeup call that the guardrails of our democracy may not be as strong as we’d assumed,” Protect Democracy’s executive director Ian Bassin tells me. “America has never had a perfect democracy, but our story has been an ongoing process of perfecting it, and if we want that to continue we’re going to have to learn lessons from this moment and reinforce the guardrails to ensure our republic remains healthy for the next generation.”
The introduction to the blueprint explains:
This document proposes a package of legislative measures to restore and shore up the fundamental structures, institutions, and norms of our constitutional democracy. We propose twenty-one reforms in five categories. The first three categories focus on the branches of government: (i) strengthening Congress’s capacity to fulfill its constitutional role; (ii) constraining abuses of executive power; and (iii) protecting the courts as a check on the other branches in order to uphold the constitution.
The other two categories focus on the most important part of our democracy: we the people. The fourth category – protecting inclusive and fact-based democratic dissent, debate, and participation – addresses how to make sure the public is accurately informed about our government and able to fully and inclusively participate in the public sphere without fear of threat or intimidation. The final category – modernizing our campaigns and election system to protect and enhance participation and accurately reflect the views of voters – focuses on how to ensure that our elections reflect the democratic choices of the country.
The proposals relating to the branches of government include, for example, building up oversight capacity in Congress; disclosure of the basis for use of force when the president commits military forces; “codifying clear prohibitions on improper White House interference in specific-party matters” with the Justice Department; beefing up the Office of Government Ethics; modernizing civil service rules and strengthening protection against retaliation; and ensuring the Census is apolitical and counts everyone in the United States as specified in the Constitution. Other proposals address inadequacies in the War Powers Act and recommend establishing a Congressional Regulation Office “to give Congress independent analytical capacity to assess regulations in a neutral manner and to conduct retrospective reviews.”
With regard to protecting dissent and debate, the blueprint recommends: “Clarifying that judicial redress is available in situations where there is political interference in regulatory or enforcement actions against media organizations; prohibiting federal officials from coercing private employers to stifle the political speech of their employees, and private employers from coercing employee speech to curry favor with government actors; and requiring reporting to Congress and the public on contacts between the White House and agencies on party-specific regulatory matters.”
In a timely recommendation, the blueprint also urges reform of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol. And in the realm of disinformation are proposals to fund media literacy programs, improve quantity and quality of data the federal government releases, and ensure that “regulatory decisions about media ownership, regulation, and licensing are entirely free from political interference.”
The most critical part of the report may be the final set of recommendations relating to campaigns and our election system: “Enacting reforms to the campaign finance enforcement system that close disclosure
loopholes, create a new enforcement and oversight agency or fix the [Federal Election Commission], and reduce opportunities for corruption or the appearance of corruption; requiring states to establish independent redistricting commissions to avoid partisan gerrymandering; and passing the Honest Ads Act, which subjects social media companies that provide platforms for civic discourse to federal regulation and campaign ad disclosure requirements.”
The blueprint also urges hardening of our voting machinery. The last batch of reforms in this category only seem partisan because one party committed itself to artificially restricting the electorate and launched a wild goose chase in search of nonexistent, wide-scale voter fraud. In fact both parties should be happy to expand voting in our democracy along these lines:
Enacting legislation to create automatic registration, make voter registration portable between every state, restore voting rights to former prisoners, require that polling location and registration status be available online, and increase federal resources for state and local election boards, possibly through the mechanism set forth in the 21st Century Voting Act; making election day either a national holiday or a weekend – possibly through the Weekend Voting Act, which moves elections from Tuesdays to the first full weekend of November, with elections lasting two full days; reauthorizing and updating struck-down portions of the Voting Rights Act, in order to continue protecting voting rights in the 21st century; and preventing long lines at the polls by setting and enforcing standards regarding the distribution of voting machines and poll workers.
Some of the suggestions will need to await a new Congress or president, others can start now. Bassin notes: “Congress brought about a range of reforms after Watergate from the Church Committee to the Ethics in Government Act. It was as if the country came together and said of Nixon: ‘What was that and how do we make sure that doesn’t happen again?'” He says, “Some of those reforms, like the War Powers Act, were passed over Nixon’s veto; others took place after he left office. We may very well have such a moment again and whether it happens in January of 2021, January of 2019, or even sooner, we need to be ready for it. ”
Certain proposals will appeal to people of a certain political persuasion. Eli Lehrer, who heads the libertarian R Street think tank, tells me he doesn’t agree with all of the blueprint. However, “The idea of creating a congressional regulation office and having Congress play a role in overseeing the administrative state would be a huge triumph for our constitution and democracy.” He notes, “Presidents have clawed power away from the legislature for decades. It remains to be seen how much power Congress can regain. In some cases, as with war powers and immigration, Trump does seem to be intent on grabbing more.”
Those on the left will be gratified to see proposals attacking voter suppression and trying to limit presidential use of military force without Congress. Progressives won’t see public funding of elections, an anathema to many conservatives. But the proposal, of course, doesn’t preclude partisan efforts outside its scope.
“Not everyone will agree with every recommendation. But it’s an act of civic courage to step back from the anxieties of every passing tweet and zero in on the underlying structural vulnerabilities that make this moment so scary,” Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org. “If we, as a nation, actually have the conversation that Protect Democracy is working to provoke—and if we act on it—then our democratic immune system may just develop the antibodies needed to prevent the next autocratic infection.”
What is remarkable is the vast number of policy items on which right, left and centrist Americans should be able to find agreement. The focus on encouraging robust debate, countering foreign influence in elections, promoting fact-based government, protecting a free press, cutting back on the dramatic expansion of executive power and strengthening a nonpartisan justice system should find near universal praise — except for those, of course, who have cheered Trump as he has tried to crush each one of these vital aspects of our democratic system.
“Americans of all political stripes who care about our democracy recognize that it has been eroding — that started before Trump, but Trump is exacerbating it. Our democracy will not protect itself,” Bassin argues. “We as citizens need to do our jobs, including by ensuring that our representatives in Congress take this challenge seriously and reinvest in the core principles that animate our Constitution and have made America great for generations.”
If the scourge of Trump sets off a period of intense reform and dramatic renewal of our democracy, it will, we pray, make Trump into a blip in American history, not the beginning of our decline as the world’s leading democracy.