Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

If Democrats take the majority in the House in next month’s midterm elections (and possibly, although unlikely, the Senate), they will have their work cut out for them. Their base is restive and fears prioritizing one issue over another, lest they look unserious about every issue on their agenda. President Trump will still be in the Oval Office — in all likelihood until 2020 — and will be as equally if not more aggressive in challenging the special counsel, fighting his own Justice Department and railing against the media and reality itself. Democrats face the temptation to do nothing but investigate the administration (goodness knows it would be enough to keep Congress busy 24/7). And finally, a batch of Democratic senators might run for president, possibly leading to all manner of grandstanding and one-upmanship.

Here are several items that might satisfy the Democratic base, help set reasonable priorities, contain the president and keep presidential contenders from going overboard.

First, the House must pass tough, comprehensive ethics reform for both itself and the executive branch, addressing everything from emoluments and conflicts of interest to the handling of sexual harassment complaints against members of Congress. Even if the president and senators drag their feet, House Democrats could at least set a standard for holding the administration to account for its conduct.

One way to do this would be to enlist respected figures to serve on an ethics commission that would produce a set of recommendations that Congress could adopt in an up-or-down vote. Some proposals might entail legislative changes; others could be adopted as Senate and House rules. Ethics reform is perhaps the most concrete way that Democrats could signal a change from Republican sycophancy to Democrats’ responsible governance, including an appropriate role for Congress in checking the executive branch.

Second, the White House press briefings have become rare, unenlightening and sources of misinformation. If Democrats win one or both houses, it would behoove their leadership to provide their own daily briefing (an increase from the current weekly briefings), both to fact-check the president and to give greater transparency to what Congress is doing. To be of interest, Democrats will need to be more candid (not hard), more factual (same) and more responsive (same) to media inquiries than the White House. Perhaps they could even shame the White House into providing more frequent and accurate briefings.

Third, Congress should amend and update the Voting Rights Act, as the Supreme Court invited it to do in 2013 when it struck down the pre-clearance process (Sections 4 and 5) for states previously guilty of violating voting rights, a process that relied on 40-year-old data.

Contrary to Trump’s baseless suggestion that the most acute problem is massive voter fraud, the real issue is voter access. Widespread closure of polling places and curtailing of early voting have become favorite tactics for Republicans in some states. In Georgia, according to news reports, the current secretary of state and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp is sitting on 53,000 voter applications, and “has cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012. Nearly 670,000 registrations were cancelled in 2017 alone.” This is unconscionable and might have been prevented if the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance measures had been in effect.

Recall that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in 2013 wrote for the majority:

Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in §2. We issue no holding on §5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions. Such a formula is an initial prerequisite to a determination that exceptional conditions still exist justifying such an “extraordinary departure from the traditional course of relations between the States and the Federal Government.” Presley, 502 U. S., at 500–501. Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.

Congress should hold proper evidentiary hearings, inform the public about the threats to voting rights and craft a legislative fix. Republicans can, if they wish, oppose such efforts, but at least there would be a clear record of voter suppression efforts, and the public would understand which party wants to make voting harder and thereby protect its power.

Fourth, Trump has attempted to discredit independent sources of information — the mainstream media, the permanent civil service and scientists. He has popularized the noxious phrase “enemy of the people.” Worse, Republicans are — unbelievably — suggesting that protests be limited in the District. (“The National Park Service proposed 14 changes to how they handle and define First Amendment protests. One of those proposals would put limits on spontaneous demonstrations, close 80 percent of the sidewalk in front of the White House and require protest organizers to reimburse the agency for the security and support it provides.”)

Congress should respond with a First Amendment protection act legislatively securing the ground rules for peaceful protests in Washington, affording journalists protection with a national shield law and obligating the administration to report on imprisonment and/or attacks on U.S. journalists (citizens or otherwise). As to the latter, Congress should clarify that foreign actors who threaten or harm journalists will be sanctioned pursuant to the Magnitsky Act. Net neutrality and consolidation of media companies (e.g., Disney buying Fox) should be the subjects of hearings and national debate. And finally, Congress should pass the Honest Ads Act and report on progress (or lack thereof) by social media companies, which promised to improve oversight and policing of malicious actors.

Democrats have plenty they can do next year. In pursuing oversight and passing necessary legislation, Congress can do its part to root out corruption, counteract the White House’s nonstop disinformation campaign, secure voting rights and protect the First Amendment. If Republicans choose to oppose these measures, it will be a clear sign of its anti-democratic (small “d”) bent.

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